Laurie’s Adventures blog

A millennium ago in Normandy

Coronation of Harold

The 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry is a remarkable work of art and storytelling. Embroidered with richly dyed woolen yarns on a 224-foot-long strip of linen, it is not actually a tapestry at all. Tapestries are woven, not embroidered. Its colors, primarily blues, greens, gold, and russet, still hold true after more than nine centuries.

Going to see this treasure is a must; the visitor experience is so well done. Before entering the darkened room, each person is given an audio guide, like a telephone handset, that narrates the tale and keeps everyone spaced out and moving at the same pace. The subtle lighting enhances the colors and you can move up close to see the details of the stitching. No photography is allowed; these photos are from Wikimedia.

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The tapestry’s more than fifty scenes tell of the events leading up to the Norman Conquest, culminating in the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066. There’s a Norman spin to the story. The scene at the start of this post shows the coronation of King Harold after the death of England’s King Edward, despite Harold having previously pledged allegiance to William of Normandy. Much like a comic strip or graphic novel, the scenes are action-packed, depicting treachery, heroism, and humor. The audio guide pointed out details we might have missed, like Hailey’s Comet, seen as a portent of the coming invasion.

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Mont-Saint-Michel is even older than the Bayeux Tapestry. Clinging to the top of the island of Mont-Tombe, this monastic enclave has grown over the centuries and has long been a place of pilgrimage. Early in the 11th century, the abbey church was built.

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The simplicity of the architecture and stained glass, the glorious weather, and the silent presence of the nuns and priests who still serve here, made this a very meaningful time for Megan and I, who climbed to the top for the full self-guided tour.

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The Benedictine monks ate in silence in the refectory, shown below, while one read scripture from the pulpit in the right wall.

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The wheel below was used to haul provisions up to the abbey in the years following the French Revolution when it was used as a prison.

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Below the abbey, the narrow streets were packed with shops and tourists. We settled for a quick picnic lunch before hurrying to catch up with Mom and Dad. We tried two types of galettes or buckwheat crepes, vegetable (filled with spinach, mushrooms, and tomatoes) and a cooked apple and cheese variety. We loved them!

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A freedom dearly won

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Men would have to come to France by sea, and many would have to die.

It was simply a question of where to land and when. Tens of thousands of lives depended on finding the best answer. At the Musée Memorial 1944 Bataille de Normandie, which we visited in Bayeux, it was sobering to learn that an entire department of the military was fully prepared to handle all the fallen soldiers before the first had even landed.

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Two alternative plans were considered for Operation Overlord, the initial sea-borne invasion that would liberate France. The first, crossing the Pas-de-Calais, where Great Britain and France lie closest, seemed intuitive. There, in northeast France near Belgium, the Allies would be far closer to friendly air support and supplies, and within striking distance of the heart of Germany. The strait, though, was heavily defended.

The beaches of Lower Normandy, forever memorialized now with the simple code names Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, were also well protected,. There were mines, physical obstacles (Dad stands by one above), and artillery batteries hidden in bunkers. But there was also a weakness. If the bridges across the Seine and the Loire were destroyed, the German troops would be cut off from reinforcements. So, on June 6, 1944, the Allies cast the die there.

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This museum’s focus was the entire battle for Normandy, up until the liberation of Paris in late August 1944. I wish we had more carefully researched which museum to visit. The town of Bayeux was a good choice for us, though, as we also saw the Bayeux tapestry, part of a future post. We opted for a quick lunch in town, ham and cheese crepes with some of the fabulous Normandy cider, then returned to the museum for the English showing of their film, which did not even include any footage of the beach landings.

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At the museum, the woman at the information desk grew very emotional as she told me that veterans still often return to visit the area. I was moved, too by the photos of town after town where homes and churches were reduced to rubble.

My greatest wish had been to visit one or more military cemeteries. In fact, I’d seen a documentary about German cemeteries still carefully tended by the French. So it was a huge disappointment to arrive at the American cemetery near Omaha Beach literally as the entrance gates swung shut, 15 minutes before the posted closing time. Almost crying, I was tempted to try to wiggle through the ornate gate that barred the way, but didn’t.

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Today, Omaha Beach looks much like any other beach, even down to the running children and lipstick-pink umbrellas. This sculpture, called Les Braves, was commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. What happened there may seem invisible, but after a visit to France, I know that it is not forgotten.

Someday I will come back, to walk among the headstones of the fallen soldiers and pay my respects. After finding our hotel in Saint-Malo, one of an excellent chain called Ibis Style, we enjoyed our best dinner yet at a harborside restaurant called Le Spinnaker.

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First impressions of rural Normandy

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Normandy’s countryside made for a picturesque day of driving, the most we would have this week. Quilted fields of yellow-flowering rapeseed and white-flowering orchards bordered pastures where cows of all colors grazed by half-timbered barns.

The sun was warming the air beneath deep cobalt skies as we arrived in Giverny. Here was where Monet had lived for exactly the second half of his life, from 1883 until his death in 1926. At 80 rue de Claude Monet, we found ample free parking in a spacious lot just across the street from his house. The ticket was a bargain at 9.5 euros.

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The large rectangular flower garden behind Monet’s house was a riot of brilliant hues. Having just left the dull brown landscape of wintery Maine, I drank in the color. Bright green grass, tulips, azaleas, poppies, and pansies lined the walkways, while vines climbed trellises, arches, and ancient stone walls.

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What I’d been dreaming of seeing, though, was Monet’s water garden, which has been recreated in its original design. A passageway took us under another road and toward the Etang des Nympheas, the lovely French translation of “water lily pond.” And there it was, with the curving bridge and the rowboat and mysterious carp hovering near thick lily pads not yet in flower.

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There were plenty of paths to wander. All of the bridges had been painted rather a shinier, brighter green than I would have chosen, but the other touches blended easily into the garden’s natural design. Bamboo railings were lashed together with dark brown twine and rustic wooden borders lined the tiny, fast-moving stream.

This was a garden of textures, merging with colors, creating the living painting that Monet had intended.  People strolled, their voices hushed, as if around the next bend they might come upon Monet intent upon his work.

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Inside, the house overflowed with art, as Japanese engravings mingled with the paintings of Monet’s contemporaries and his own. The yellow dining room and blue kitchen made me feel right at home; they were my favorite rooms.

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Our next stop, a detour to Etratat, on Normandy’s north coast, was well worth it. White cliffs bracket the beach on either end like encircling arms and tower high above mere humans. The sea in places has carved out arches and tiny caves. Mom and Dad sat on a bench looking out over the English Channel, perhaps remembering early days on a beach on the other side of the Atlantic.

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We ended our day with dinner in the scenic town of Honfleur, where tall narrow houses, some 2 windows wide and 7 stories tall, marched along the far side of the harbor. We will have one more day in Normandy, then head to Brittany.

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Just a peek at the grandeur of Paris

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We walked home late Sunday afternoon, with Île Saint-Louis bathed in sunlight that had finally won free of dark clouds. We’d sampled pungent blue cheese and local wine and walked a timeline from the very roots of the city to the fall of brave heroes in World War II. It had been a full day, and yet just a bit of all that Paris has to offer.

That first night I hadn’t gotten much sleep, couldn’t sleep, and didn’t even feel tired when morning came. Paris energized me with her tempo that never seems to stop. It was invigorating, pulsing, embracing, but also required our commitment not to linger. We didn’t. I’ve fallen in love with French butter and tried it this morning on a croissant, though Mom and Dad’s crepes looked awfully good, too.

Our day began at the Musée d’Orsay, a treasure trove of Impressionism, with lovely exhibits of art nouveau, architectural models, and more that we didn’t see. We traveled by metro to this museum which resides in a former train station.

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We spent about four hours there and absorbed so much that we never ended up (at least this weekend) going to the Marmottan. I was particularly drawn, logically, to the natural landscapes of the Impressionists, who strived to capture moments in time by working quickly in the ever-changing light. “The brushwork is rapid and visible,” said one display. “The framework is often off-center; the colours are light, seeking to capture the atmospheric effects outdoors.” The two works below did this well, I thought.

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Both of these paintings were in a gallery focusing on the early years, following the first Impressionist Exhibit in 1874. Renoir’s painting above (1876) shows the banks of the Seine at Champrosay. Alfred Sisley’s painting below (1877) is of the Seine at Suresnes.

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Then there was the fun of discovering paintings that I knew, from art history class or a book…moving close to scrutinize the brushwork, then moving back to see the whole scene. Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette and Van Gogh’s first Starry Night (not the one painted later after he was confined to a mental institution) both reside at d’Orsay.

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My favorite work in the art nouveau exhibit was the delicately- colored stained glass of “Cygnes sur la lac d’Annecy,” created in 1890.

Our Seine river tour was not particularly noteworthy, although it did help me understand the layout of Paris a little better. The overcast sky and crowded quarters dampened our moods or perhaps we were still jet-lagged. I did enjoy the motley assortment of houseboats moored along the banks; some are older working canal boats repurposed for habitation, with patio sets and umbrellas out on the decks.

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From the Hotel Abbatial, it was just a short walk across one of the bridges to Île de la Cité. This island in the Seine is the oldest part of Paris, first populated by Celtic tribes in the third century B.C. and home to the cathedral of Notre-Dame. A bride and groom were just emerging from a shiny white Rolls Royce to take wedding photos, so I took one, too.

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As we walked across the small island, we passed two plaques honoring the places where men of the French Resistance had died during the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. You could just hear the emotion and respect in Dad’s voice as he explained their significance to Megan.

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Nearby was Sainte-Chapelle, whose towering stained glass windows are framed by the thinnest of columns, curving into the heavens. This marvel of Gothic architecture was constructed in the mid 13th century by Louis IX to hold Christ’s Crown of Thorns and fragments of the cross, which the king purchased from the Emperor of Constantinople. These holy relics cost three times as much as the chapel’s construction!

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With our aesthetic and historical minds full, we headed to another excellent restaurant that Dad remembered from long ago, called La Rotisserie d’Argent, where I had superb confit de canard. We enjoyed the food so much that we made a reservation to return in a week on our last night in Paris. In the interim, our next stop will be Normandy.

 

 

 

 

Paris, we love you!

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“Any rubbish for the bin?” our cheery Aer Lingus flight attendant asked, collecting the remnants of our breakfast. “Any children for the bin? Or have you all been good children now?” I laughed. The travel logistics had gone smoothly and we were almost to Paris.

From the plane window, Dad pointed out the English Channel, which he said the French call La Manche. It’s been 47 years since Dad first came to France and he returned often on business trips. For the rest of us (Mom, Megan, and I), it would be brand new.

We arrived midday Saturday for two nights in Paris, then a week touring northwestern France. We will wind our way through Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley, before returning to Paris for one last night.

Just getting to our hotel was an adventure, with a rolling rail strike in process. On certain days, there are trains running, but only a few. On the RER train from the airport to the city, the crush of humanity seemed limitless, as more people crammed on at each stop, far more than I would have believed possible. As an icebreaker, the experience was unsurpassed, and one young woman even helped us negotiate our transfer to the metro.

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People in Paris seem to welcome conversation. At this sidewalk table, we talked with a woman walking her spaniel, who was excited to discover that we were from Maine. She loves watching the TV show “Murder She Wrote,” which still airs here, and wanted to know if Cabot Cove was a real place.

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Megan was waiting when we arrived at our hotel, amazingly cheerful despite her suitcase being still in D.C. On the bright side, she got to shop for a new Paris dress!

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The Hotel Abbatial St. Germaine, on busy Boulevard St. Germaine, lies close to the Seine River and Notre Dame. Our room is on the street side, with a small balcony, and we’ve enjoyed leaving the door open to the sights and sounds of the city. It also brings fresh air into our small and rather warm room.

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We finished the day with dinner at La Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris. We ordered a bottle of champagne to celebrate our safe arrival. I had a country terrine, coalfish with winter vegetables, and crème brulee, then we walked upstairs to see Voltaire’s desk, which occupied a place of honor amid the elegant décor. Then, to sleep.

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A March gathering of canoeists warms the heart


Thanks to a generous invitation, last weekend I attended my first (but probably not my last) Wilderness Paddlers Gathering. Begun in March 1993 during “a blizzard of historic proportions,” this annual event has become a tradition at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont. For those of us who love canoeing, what could be a better way to spend a March weekend? Sharing stories, photos and videos, skills, and incredible amounts of tasty food with those who love canoeing the waters of the north.


Once there, I discovered a few old friends and made lots of new ones. I had 25 minutes on Saturday morning to tell my story and practiced at great length on the 4-hour drive over to this comfortable camp on the NH/VT border. See what a great audience I had! As always, though, listening to everyone else was the most fun. Through the beautiful magic of media, we rafted the Grand Canyon, paddled the Alatna and Koyukuk Rivers in Alaska, and followed Chewonki down Quebec and Labrador’s George River.

My favorite was a documentary, “Into Twin Galaxies: A Greenland Epic.” This hour-long film follows three young explorers on a insanely breath-taking quest kite-skiing across the Greenland ice cap to reach a river that they discovered on Google Earth. Delayed by the terrain and a serious injury, they arrive later than planned to find ice where they expected open water. When fate finally provides them with a churning river filled with huge, uncharted waterfalls, viewers will hold their breath in astonishment at what they try to run. Seize the chance to see this one when you can!

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Of course, you never know quite what you’ll learn. Above, retired Vermont fish & game warden Eric Nuse, whose stories are featured in Megan Price’s book series, Vermont Wild, tells a great breakfast story. Seems there was this ripe moose carcass caught up in a tree, one that could perhaps be best removed with dynamite. The key to success, learned the hard way, was to have a long enough cord to get well out of range!

Below is the traveling library that appears at both of the yearly Northern Wilderness Travelers Conferences, including the November Snow Walkers Rendezvous. I borrowed a book that’s been on my list for a long time, Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the North West Passage by Victoria Jason. I guess that I just can’t get enough of reading by the woodstove, waiting for spring!

To think I almost put my snowshoes away

 

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Sadly, February was mainly dedicated to flu survival and recovery. Happily, I got better in time to visit my children in Virginia, meeting their new chickens, touring Monticello, and celebrating my former brother-in-law’s 50th birthday. (How could that be?)

Now, somehow, I find myself a week away from spring, with visions of paddling trips dancing in my head. There is much to share and catch up on!

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View of last week’s snow-laden trees from flat on my back. I’d been tugging on a sapling bent across the path and pinned to the snowy ground. As it popped free, I tumbled backwards, arms flailing, to see the forest from a slightly different angle!

Today is another snow day, our ninth, counting the 3 days we missed with October’s wind storm. That is two more than in any other school year I can remember. With our third nor’easter in 11 days upon us, and a blizzard warning, we may miss tomorrow as well. Last week’s storm brought about 14 inches of wet, heavy snow that plastered itself to the sides of trees and created Dr. Seuss-like mounds on every branch and twig.


In late February, I was tickled by the sign above, spotted in Thomaston during a book delivery jaunt. The weather was warm and the air felt like spring. I truly did almost put my snowshoes away. Now I think the groundhog may have been wiser than I thought!

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Out snowshoeing this morning, with just a dusting of new powder, turkey tracks were everywhere. In places, the forest floor was in turmoil where they’d torn up the leaf litter in search of food. Hopefully the turkeys were feasting on ticks, already active here in Maine. I found the first one of the year crawling on my pants last week. Seems like we should either have ticks or blizzards, not both!

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Usually, I have the back woods to myself. This morning, though, I was greeted by a new friend. Our neighbors had taken a walk with their kids, leaving behind this snowman, decorated with branches, pine cones, and lichen. By mid-afternoon, he was rapidly becoming just a snowman-shaped blob.

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Well, it certainly feels good to be back to writing. Look for more news soon, including updates on Upwards and the author life and perhaps even some paddling plans. Then, in April, our family adventure in France will take us to Paris, Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley.  Until then, stay warm, dry, and safe!