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Published: August 11th 2008
The French don’t have the reputation for being the most open and friendly race in the world so you can imagine my shock the first time I received a random 'Bonjour' walking around in France. Admittedly my previous experience on French soil was a vist to Paris when I was 20 and probably not the most culturally aware, however take my advice - get the hell out of the capital and wander around the villages of Normandy to see the real France and real French.
Operation Invade Normandy was hatched by Bruce as a research trip to visit the little village of Brix the birthplace of the name Bruce. This of course meant that Bruce got to organise the transport, accommodation and itinerary and myself and his friend Mike from Cambridge got to turn up.
Meeting point / Waterloo train station / Destination / Poole
Never let it be said I don’t give all English towns a fair go, but Poole … not a great deal that I could see to recommend it. Of course I may have been a little biased by the train trip which consisted of the passengers from a 10 carriage train being crammed
into 5 due to ‘carriage shortages’. I may have had to stand for an hour or so, but I was at least able to open my bottle of cider through an ingenious method involving a pen and a key … it was a tough week!
Poole was but a way station to the true delights of the weekend and at 7.30am on Friday morning I was not sad to wave Poole and England goodbye for a relaxed trip across the Channel on the Brittany Ferry to Cherbourg. The ferry only took 2 hours (and one time zone) to leave grey England behind and reach ... also grey France. A wander through Cherbourg to pick up a hire car and we were off to terrorize the French.
First stop was a little village just outside of Cherbourg by the nameof Brix. Brix was the birthplace of the name Bruce (hence the reason for the stop over) so a visit to the patisserie provided a lunch of croissants and pastries (drooling remembering) and a wander around the village which to be fair was quite small, but the story goes that a family emigrated to the North of France with William
the Conqueror and that Bruce arose out of an anglicanisation of Brix.
After lunch on a whim we decided to head down the coast to 'have a look' at Mont-Saint-Michel, in lower Normany which has been the site of a monastry which is thought to date from 708. It is essentially a rocky outcrop just off the coast which in olden days was completely surrounded by water when the tide was in and marshes outside of that ... including quicksand! A haven for Benedictine monks given the remote location and the sheer rocky cliffs which protected it! The addition of rampants and fortifications made it an impregnable stronghold during the 100 year war, resisting all attempts by the English to take it and therefore an important symbol of national pride for the French to this day! It's much easier to access these days with a significant causeway, tourist buses and everyone welcoming you in ... for a price.
Our 'look' became a 4 hour exploration of the Mont and the Abbey and if you are in that part of the world I can't recommend it enough - it was amazing - but beware the multitude of stairs and
steep, steep ascents! The down side was that by the time we finished there we were starving and had a 2 hour drive to Arromanche, the site of one of the D-Day beaches, which was our base for the weekend. Needless to say that when we arrived we checked into our B&B and made our way to the Marina to feast on fresh, fabulous food enjoyed with wine and a magnificent 9.30pm sunset - heaven on earth.
Day 2 was up for fresh baguettes and cafe creme before heading along the coast to visit the American Cemetary at Omaha Beach. Another 'quick look' which took a number of hours more than expected. The Cemetary is huge and in a very American way ... neatly ordered. There is an excellent museum covering the D-Day planning and implementation and then we wandered through the line after line of graves which make up the memorial site. No visit would be complete without a run down to the beach and a slow, gradual saunter back up the hill to the cemetary. Omaha Beach is absolutely massive - it is so wide and until you stand near the waterline and look across the wide
expanse and then up, up, up the hills to where the German gun placements would have been it's difficult to comprehend the scale of the invasion and the bloodbath that it was.
After the more sombre visit it was a drive to Bayeaux, a gorgeous Norman town and home of the Bayeaux Tapestry which records the events leading up to William the Conquorer's invasion of England in 1066. The Tapestry is huge - stretching 70m and telling as a single story from the decision by Edward the Confessor to appoint William as his heir, to the ill fated journey of Harold to France, the death of Edward, Harold seizing the crown and William invading to take back his rights! A rollicking and rather gruesome record of the events with great bloody battle scenes - very cool! The Tapestry itself is housed in a special museum to preserve it. I think there was talk of the English wanting it back, but I don't think much of their chances.
Bayeaux is also the home of the Bayeaux Cathedral, designed in the Norman-Romanesque style (which I think means big, not too ornate inside, but lots of gargoyles!). I was quite lucky
Early morning fisherman
ok ... it wasn't really that early
to get into the Cathedral proper before a bridal party who closed it to tourists for a wedding. Of course by that time I was already around the back and in the Crypt so I got 'trapped' in with the bridal party ... oops. It did mean I got to enjoy the lovely music and to take a few moments to enjoy the wedding service - a nice experience.
After Bayeaux it was back to Arromanches for a final wander, dinner and an early night for the trip back to England on the Sunday. Sad to leave, but looking forward to a return to Normandy as there is so much still to see.
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