Sunday 25th October 2015
Portsmouth / Honfleur / Deauville
For many years I took school pupils to France. We went to Agincourt, Le Touquet, Caen, Ypres, Honfleurs and Paris. As a family, we drove across Europe to the west, south and middle of France. To Corsica, Switzerland and beyond.
However, the memsahib had never visited the battlefields of the Second World War. So it was time for a ‘road-trip’.
I’m still trying to work out why I mistakenly thought that Portsmouth would be an interesting place. An afternoon in the rain removed any chance of that. What a depressing city on a wet Sunday afternoon in October. Two hours to kill waiting for the ferry for Le Continent.
Unfortunately, the ferry from Portsmouth to le Havre is no cruise, either. Overnight, swaying from side to side in a narrow bunk is not the most auspicious way to start a holiday.
Fortunately, we left the bad weather behind and breakfast in Honfleur was an absolute treat. What a lovely town. Built on the banks of the river, it still retains its medieval charm with many lovely buildings.
We were staying at an apartment in Deauville courtesy of Oren and Airbnb (https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/2859907). It was a second floor apartment about fifteen minutes walk from the town and five minutes walk from the beach. Ideal, really. It made such a difference having the car to hand, as well. We packed a bar in Wales, so by the time the rugby and the football came on the TV, the gin was ice-cold, the sun was shining and all was well with the world.
Monday 26th October 2015
Mont St. Michel
School-boy French returned as I negotiated my way through tranches of ham and waited while a fresh batch of croissants arrived from the depths of the boulangerie down the road. How I love France. Bakeries are an art-form and they now provide a slip of waxed paper so you don’t have to expose your baguette to the secretions of the underarm as you carry it home in the traditional manner.
Breakfast always seems to be an overload of carbohydrates. Pain aux raisins, croissants and baguette avec beurre and confiture.
We headed for Mont St. Michel.Motorway all the way, with no seeming regard for a speed limit. I miss the old days of the Renault 4s and the 2CVs. Are there no more lingering in barns? Rusting and home to hens waiting for the weekly trips to the supermarche?
I remember, years ago, having my first sight of the island from the window of a school coach. It’s always magical. It was 30 years since I last went there. As we drove along the lanes I waited to see the explosion of ‘Wow!’ from the memsahib as she had her first glimpse of what is truly a wonder to behold. I wasn’t left disappointed.
The old car park is now a huge bus park with shops and information offices. There is a new causeway walk that takes 45 minutes or you can join the long queue of tourists to catch the bus to the other side. We walked. The citadel coming ever closer and so many opportunities for the perfect photograph.
The citadel is exactly the same as it was. The magic of the streets early in the morning or late at night hold their mysteries during the day amid all the tourist tat that is sold from every shop and doorway. Endless boxes of biscuits and fridge magnets galore.
The views across the estuary are astonishing and the whole place is magical. It’s a World Heritage Site as well it should be. The light changes the colours of the stone almost continually and the patterns on the mudflats are fascinating and a beauty to behold.
The usual crowds abound. Many far Eastern tourists. I can never be sure if they are Taiwanese or Korean? They are always so compact and touching the edges of fashion. There were not many English speakers and only a few Americans. The majority of the tourists were home-grown and developing the patience to queue that doesn’t come easily to the European but a skill that we, the English have perfected. They are getting better at it by the decade.
After some serious walking, we returned to Deauville. Carrefour amply provides for the stay-at-home tourists and poulet roti, copious amounts of salad and wine of the region is most welcome.
Tuesday 27th October 2015
Pegasus Bridge / Lion sur Mer / Luc sur Mer / Courseuilles sur Mer / Sword / Juno / Gold / Arromanche
An emotional day. In the morning we spent two hours at the Pegasus Bridge. I stood, hands on hips and feet apart feeling, if not looking, like Richard Todd. The whole experience is, quite simply, emotionally draining. The flimsiness of the timber gliders, supporting a plan that relied so much on luck and the anticipation of 50% casualties. Canadians British, Americans, in fact troops from all over the Empire, all supporting the same cause. It must have been equally terrifying for the Germans.
Curiously, whilst the car park was full of cars from France and the UK – the French all seem to drive Citroen, Peugeot or Renault, – every British-owned car was built by a German-owned company: VW, Skoda, Audi and BMW. The consequences, and benefits, of coming second!
After lunch, we followed the Overlord coastal drive through Lion sur mer, Luc sur Mer and Courseilles sur Mer. I couldn’t help musing on the fact that these towns were all looking across the water, day after day, wondering what was going on. And across, in the Warmington on Seas, up and down the coastline, they were doing exactly the same.
Sword, Juno, Gold…names that have gone down in history. Now the front aprons to peaceful and charming seaside towns with their familiar restaurants, hotels and mini-golf courses.
Finally, mid-afternoon, we reached Arromanche. I’d been here before on a school trip, but the sight of the Mulberry harbour still moves me. The engineering feat…rehearsed in Conwy..and then put into place securing as safe a haven as could be, ironically, to offload a whole panoply necessary for the expedition.
They have built a new 360 degree cinema experience which is predictably grateful for the role played by the Allies and portrays the French as resolute and hardy. A small boy behind me was curious about the animation. “What are all those flags for?” They are the flags of the nations that fought against the Germans,” said his father. “Where’s the French flag, then?” an interesting observation and not enough time for anyone, let alone his father, to explain the complexity of the French situation.
“So what’s the ‘D’ for in Franklin D. Roosevelt?” I asked the memsahib. She got that one right, and the ‘D’ in Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mind you, I got her with the ‘D’ in Charles D. Gaulle!
Anyway, we returned to Deauville for a glass or three of red before a stroll down the Boardwalk and a meal in Deauville of moules and frites.
Wednesday 28th October 2015
Bayeux / Honfleur
Today we went to see the Bayeux Embroidery. Now, I know that it’s advertised the world over as the Bayeux Tapestry. However, quite simply, and kindly, they’re all wrong. It’s not a heavy fabric with a design woven into it…otherwise known as a ‘tapestry’ but rather a light linen with a design stitched into it, otherwise known as an embroidery Simple mistake to me, mind. Sorry to sound so pedantic but I can’t work out why no one has twigged, considering it’s been around for so long. OK, it was nearly lost in the revolutions when it was cut up and nearly dispatched throughout France. However, this is the original, not a copy, and a spectacular feat of needlework.
However, you want to describe it, providing it’s referred to as an embroidery, it was thirty-odd years ago since I last saw it and it’s lost none of its vibrancy, colour and staggering beauty. It’s still the best graphic story that 9 euros can buy. There are so many parts of it to love: the horse with one leg still in the boat, they keys to the city being given to William on the end of a lance, Harold clutching his eye and the hand of God teaching down to take him into eternity. Just think, if William had lost, he’s still be William the Bastard instead of William the Conqueror. Not a bad soubriquet for a morning’s work.
Bayeux is still an attractive town. The cathedral, despite it being far too big for the space given , doesn’t make Bayeux a city, which is rather odd. After all, St. Asaph is a city and its cathedral is tiny in comparison. Bayeux was the first city to be liberated by the Allies and it’s curious that, give 71 years of history having passed, so many shops and restaurants have notices in the windows reading “Welcome to our Liberators”. Some are even etched into the double glazing. Anyway, it was good to feel welcomed. Clearly, the directive given out a few years ago from Paris for shopkeepers and waiters to smile and be welcoming to foreigners and tourists (not necessarily in that order) has not fallen on stony ground. Warm smiles and nods abound. Oh, for the return of the Gallic Shrug!
We went on to Honfleur. You can see why it made such an impression on Monet. Sorry, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for that one. It is, however, a beautiful fishing town. You could eat yourself into obesity within the time it takes for a ‘short break’, especially with the exchange rate being as favourable as it is. Tiny streets full of half-timbered houses and shops, cobbles and dark alleys. It’s a film set perfect for claustrophobic murders and the antics of ladies of the night. The sun stays in the main harbour area welcoming those enjoying breakfasts on the one side and then moving to warm them while taking afternoon tea on the other.
Back home and in the evening, we enjoyed a G&T before heading out for a walk into Deauville and another meal. The glorious weather may well last.
Thursday 29th October 2015
Rouen / Jumieges
Pain au chocolat, croissants, dejuenettes, pain au compagne, baguettes…..so much choice and so many names to memorise. And that’s only breakfast. The choices are endless and delicious.
A trip to France would not be complete without an outing to a Centre de Commercial. Once you’ve been to the City of Europe near Calais, everywhere else is slightly second-best. Our trip was to Rouen. It was bearable, but not great. Hypermarkets have changed over the years and not always for the better. Fewer wines in cases and more single bottles which might be handy for the locals but less so for those of us trying to organise boot space. It’s different in the Channel ports – presumably someone has considered this. On top of this, they no longer sell guns and ammunition. When I first came to France in the 70s, you could buy yourself quite a decent piece from Auchan, ready to hold up any PTT you passed on the D road heading south.
The Abbey at Jumieges is a falling, if not fallen treasure. Sold for scrap in the1700s, it was systematically carted away for building stone over the next century before someone realised that it was a thing of beauty and could easily give Fountains Abbey a run for its money on the tourist trail. What is left is eerie, solemn and magnificent.
There are so many beautiful villages in this part of France. So many thatched-roofed cottages and grand chateaux. I don’t think we’ve been through or stopped at somewhere that has disappointed. We must get back here again, and soon. It’s not often we think that in a world that has so much to offer.
It’s almost time to start thinking about the journey home .
Friday 30th October 2015
In a boat heading north, I think. The car boot is full of the delights of Auchan and has been checked by an eleven-year old policeman at the port in case we were intending to add to the rise in numbers of illegal immigrants. But c’est ne pas un probleme. I am officially able to be repatriated.
Five hours being rolled around in the English Channel and then a break in the journey at Frilford Heath.
Saturday 31st October 2015
Frilford Heath and home
The Dog House at Frilford Heath was a real find and was lovely. One of the Olde English Inns group, we had steak, sea bass fillets, brownie plant pot and millionaire’s cheescake with ample good beer. (https://www.oldenglishinns.co.uk/our-locations/the-dog-house-frilford-heath). A spacious, warm room and a good breakfast to set us on the way home.
Where next? Vilnius in February, I think.