Saturday, 14 March 2009

France - Part Two: Normandy

A text from Rod confirmed what we already thought might be the case... rain was on its merry way to Normandy. I'll let you fill in what was said after we learnt of the forecast.
Kent was still determined to get over to Normandy though, so we loaded up the car on Saturday morning and drove for almost 11 hours, making it most of the way there, passing through Le Mans (some of the main road is on the race circuit, so we got to drive on a bit of it), the Champagne region, and the Loire Valley, including passing through the town of Chablis. I thought it might be bigger, having a wine variety named after it and all, but no. It was about the size of Dunsandel, and half as interesting.
Kent had mentioned the idea of 'free camping' from the start of the trip - a few words from Patrick put us off doing it in Germany (the words 'illegal', 'moved on' and 'big fine' were used), the snow was a bit of a problem in Austria, and in the northern parts of our trip it was just too cold for wusses like me to be roughing it. This night, however, there were no excuses, as we were not really anywhere near any decent hostels or open camping grounds, so free camping it was... We found a small town (I wanted to be in a built up area so that baddies would be less likely to murder us) with a parking area by a water tower and pitched the tent. I ended up sleeping in the car (condensation-tastic!) while Kent had both mattresses in the tent as he doesn't fit in the car horizontally. Safe to say it wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had, but it was free, and did mean we were up mighty early in the morning.
We drove to Caen first thing, and had a brief walk around, although not much of an idea what was what as the information office was closed (helpful). We did go to Chateau Dulac, which was, almost a thousand years ago, allegedly home of William the Conqueror, although as most of Caen was bombed during 1944, there wasn't very much left, and what was there didn't appear as old as the guide books have you believe. There was a great Normandy museum inside the castle walls though, so it wasn't a completely wasted trip.
We had already found a camping ground near Bayeux, one which said it was open all year, but we'd heard that before, so were a bit nervous about it, but fortunately, it was where it said it would be and it was open - hooray!
The inital plan was to visit this part of the country to see the Bayeux Tapestry (almost 1000 years old now, and in pretty good nick). I hadn't really clicked that it was in Normandy, where the D-Day landings happened, which added a crazy number of things to see and do to the list, but we had five days before we had to catch the ferry home, so it was definitely do-able.
Our first WWII stop was a series of German bunkers, complete with guns, some in various states of disrepair after being whooped by the Allies. There used to be a huge line of bunkers right along the coast of France (the Atlantic Wall), which the Nazis thought was pretty much indestructible. It wasn't, and the results are littered along the cliffs. It is surreal that there are plenty of reminders of the D-Day campaign, and that we could just wander all over this place where so many young men (on both sides) died. You can read all you like about history and be taught about it at school, but I don't think you really understand until you see some of the destruction which remains (and even then it's still far from real to me). Sorry to be a bit morose, but as always, I was fairly humbled by all the monuments and museums, and had a bit of a lump in my throat through a lot of them, particularly the cemetaries. We went to Arromanches (code named Gold beach) site of an artificial port from D-Day, and the American Cemetary, which overlooks Omaha Beach.

The next day was forecast to be raining heavily, so we opted for inside amusement (and something a little lighter) but thought it was about time we had the funny noise our car had been making most of the way through Europe sorted out first. This would have been fine, had either of us spoken fluent French, and whilst I can communicate a few basics, explaining what was wrong with our car, considering we weren't even sure, was a bit beyond my capabilites. So we found ourselves at the Bayeux Information Centre, where the very nice lady pointed out that she couldn't be sure if any of the mechanics she knew spoke English, as she always spoke French with them (touche!), but she kindly wrote down a translation of what we thought the problem was and pointed us in the direction of the Renault garage. We were pretty worried that they would see us coming and start rubbing their hands together in glee, but actually, the exact opposite happened - the young mechanic (no english) took Kent for a drive, couldn't figure it out, so took it into the workshop, had a bit of a look and figured out that it was a loose something, sorted it all out, told his boss (good english) who told Kent what the problem had been, and when we asked how much it would be for the time, he said it was free... yet again: why does everyone think the French are so awful? They are clearly lovely, and I can't imagine getting that kind of service for nothing on this side of the channel!
The rest of the day was spent looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, which was fantastic, and yet again, it was just right there, with hardly any people around; the Journalist Memorial, which commemorates reporters who lost their lives in combat zones since 1945; the British Cemetary (which includes 8 New Zealanders) and the Bayeax D-Day museum, which was very well done, but was a lot to take in.
Kent had found a brochure for a cheese village about an hour's drive away, so we went there in the morning, it smelled a bit inside the factory, as cheese often does, but the tour was pretty good, and it was free, our favourite price. To make up for it, we bought a couple of cheeses to take back to Rod & Lou... despite sealing them in airtight containers inside a plastic bag, they continued to remind us of their presence for the next 2 1/2 days until we got them to the fridge in Sheffield - mmm, pongy!
The Chateau a Guillame le Conqureant (William the Conqureor's Castle - apparently this was his main one) wasn't too far away, but unfortunately was a bit disappointing. We'd already seen some footage from the Normandy campaign in WWII which showed some of the castle at Falaise getting hit by bombs, so knew it wouldn't be in the best condition, but instead it has been reconstructed, and in parts is just ugly and awful... such a shame, but it is probably a big money spinner for the town, so you can't really blame whoever's in charge for having a go.
We attempted a look at some Roman ruins the next day, but after driving for over an hour to get there, and parking, we walked into the visitor centre to find all the displays covered in sheets, and the whole thing being redecorated...aaargh! Technically it was open, but the receptionist didn't speak English, and only managed to nod when I said 'ferme?' (closed). Surely it wouldn't have killed them to put a sign up in the carpark???! Instead we went back to the seaside to look at Le Grande Bunker in Ouistreham, a 4-5 storey concrete tower, from (you guessed it) WWII, built to back up the Atlantic Wall defenses. It was taken almost completely undamaged by 4 British troops in July 1944, even though there were over 3o Germans inside at the time. Outside, there was one of the landing craft they used on D-Day which was reused during the filming of Saving Private Ryan - it's the one Tom Hanks et al were in right at the start, so we had a bit of a nosey at that too. The town also still had some 'dragon's teeth' in the sand dunes, which were kind of cool to see, although the spiky sharp nasty bits had been removed earlier, so the coolness was diminished somewhat.
And then it was Friday, our last day, so we took the coastal route from Le Moulay Littry, where we'd been staying, to Dieppe, where our ferry left from... we passed through some of the most gorgeous little towns either of us has seen, with beautiful old houses and long sandy beaches (and the odd yummy patisserie!), slightly gutted that we only discovered them on the way home, but at least we saw them.
K & E x

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