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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