Au revoir Normandie

Thursday 18th December 2008, Bayeux
We recently drove to Saint-Lô to see what was there. Unfortunately it's not a lot. It was blitzed completely during the D-Day assault in June 1944, caught between the German and American armies. The entire town was rebuilt in a hurry to provide its citizens with emergency accommodation and it really does represent the worst in 20th century French architecture. People are accommodated in characterless blocks of brutalist grey concrete flats. It must be really dismal to have lived one's entire life in such an ugly, soulless place.

Inappropriate church tower. Saint-Lô

The fortified city walls have been partially spared and might even be attractive in summer with public gardens at their base, but on a bitter December afternoon with the light fading they did not entice.

The cathedral was completely destroyed at one end. At first I was horrified to see it had simply been bricked up, the remains of the beautiful mediaeval tracery left as they were with a dark, stark wall covering the bombed-out front. Inside however, it made far more sense. It was a visual reminder of the destruction of war and a memorial of all that the town had suffered. The cost of restoring would have been prohibitive and there were greater priorities for public spending at the time. One thing that did survive is an ornate external stone pulpit for offering open air sermons to worshipers in the square beneath. We've never seen such a thing before. Neither apparently had Victor Hugo as we later found an enthusiastic reference to it following a visit he made to Saint-Lô.

External 15th century pulpit at the Cathedral, Saint-Lô

Restored façade to the cathedral, Saint-Lô

The town's other feature of note is its haras or stud farm. Normandy is internationally acclaimed for the quality of its horses and the haras at Saint-Lô is the largest in France. It stands at the eastern entrance to the town. In summer it is open to visitors with displays not only of the magnificent horses that are bred there, but also of the techniques used in their training.

Main buildings of the haras at Saint-Lô

Yesterday the sun shone so cheerfully we decided to drive up to Cherbourg for the day. Normally we simply land there from the ferry late at night and drive straight through on our way down the Cotentin Peninsula to Caen.

We arrived late morning and parked down near the port, crossing the bridge and walking into town. It is in a remarkably well preserved state considering it was held by the Germans for several weeks following the D-Day invasion. Eventually captured by the American army, it took over from the temporary harbour at Arromanches as the main port for disembarking troops, supplies, equipment and fuel.

So much of the town's original character remains. It is perhaps rather run-down in places with some dilapidated façades to the side streets, but it has some wonderful late 19th century architecture, in particular the theatre which externally is a joy to behold. Inside too it remains much as it was at the turn of the century with much use of moulding, gold leaf and red velvet. One day we'd really love to attend a performance there. Immediately out front is an open square with a cast-iron fountain in the centre dating from the same period. Around it was the Christmas market with stalls making pancakes and selling hot mulled wine.

Theatre, Cherbourg

Behind the theatre we found the library where Ian needed to check details for future research in the collections. It is a large modern building with free internet access. Upstairs we found the city art gallery. It is huge for the size of the town, crowded with sculptures, bronzes and paintings by such illustrious names as Claudel, Millett and Poussin as well as an excellent collection of Dutch and Flemish 17th century works. We had not intended spending precious sunny daylight indoors but were sufficiently captivated to pass a couple of hours there.

Nearby we found the botanical gardens with their exotic hothouses and the town's natural history museum. Somebody invited us to attend an evening lecture on creationism and Darwin in the museum but I didn't fancy driving back to Bayeux in complete darkness. As it was, it was gone 7pm by the time we returned to our flat.

Napoleon, near the Port, Cherbourg

Marina, Cherbourg

When we were in Calais we found a monument commemorating the first crossing of the Channel in a powered aircraft by Louis Blériot in 1909. Yesterday we discovered flights had been made by hot air balloon long before that! A plaque in the library noted the first crossing from Cherbourg right the way to London in 1886!

First crossing of the English Channel by hot air balloon in 1886

Today we drove across the Plaine de Caen, a flat, empty area of countryside lying between Bayeux and Caen. As far as the eye can see there is an empty, brown, ploughed landscape which in summer would be endless swaying fields of wheat. There are no hedges and no trees. Every now and again the spire of a village church appears on the horizon and eventually the road sweeps into a tumbling street of old creamy stone houses with frequently a weathered mediaeval wall and an imposing archway leading to the courtyard of a huge fortified farmhouse. Seconds later the village has been left behind and once again the empty landscape stretches away into the distance.

We stopped at Courseilles-sur-Mer, otherwise known as Juno Beach. It was at the centre of the Canadian assault in June 1944. It seems a pleasant, though unremarkable little town today. On the seafront is one of the tanks that came ashore here. It stands as a memorial to the Canadian forces and to those who died here. In the main street are some large and extravagant houses with high pointed roofs, timber decorated façades and ornate gables. This style reached it apogee in Deauville and Cabourg at the end of the 19th century.

Armoured tank sunk offshore during the landings of 6th June 1944, dredged up from the sea 27 years later, Juno Beach, (Courseilles)

The town was silent and deserted at lunch time and all the shops were shut. Outside one we found trays of pansies, exactly what we were looking for to fill the troughs in Geneviève's garden. It was two hours until the staff returned so we counted out the money and pushed it under the door before helping ourselves to a couple of trays and walking off! Will the staff even realise what the money on the mat is for?

We drove on along the coast for a while, through St. Aubin-sur-Mer before turning inland to Caen where we spent a couple of hours with Geneviève explaining the finer details of making typically English cheese and pickle sandwiches before returning to Bayeux to load Modestine with bottles of Normandy cider from the local supermarket.

Tuesday 30th December 2008, Exeter
Well Christmas is now behind us and we are at home in Exeter preparing for our return to France in a couple of days time.

Our last days in Bayeux were delightful. Before we left we drove to Vire, a very pleasant town built on a windy hilltop in the Cotentin. Here the use of white stone as a building material is less pervasive and there is much use of granite for the façades of building, churches and tombstones. It made an agreeable contrast. The western Cotentin lies at the juncture of the limestone of Normandy and the granite of Britanny. Somehow over the years we have been visiting Normandy Vire has always escaped us before. It is famed for its andouilettes, thick, fatty sausages packed with strips of animals intestines. They look like bundles of hollow rubber bands neatly packaged together in a piece of sheep's gut. They are seasoned with herbs and pepper and are renowned throughout France as a culinary delight. As we have said before, the French palette is far more adventurous than ours in Britain and they are prepared to eat almost anything – except most English food.

Castle remains, Vire

Granite church and market square, Vire

Museum and administrative buildings, Vire

Near Vire is the Viaduc de Souleuvre, an impressive and now disused railway bridge crossing 70 metres above a wooded gorge. From here, on summer days, it is now possible to bungee jump into the ravine below on the end of a particularly long piece of andouilette. The day of our visit there was nobody around and the wind was glacial. The railway line originally offered a passenger service between Vire and Caen and there were several old photos displayed showing its construction and inauguration. So narrow was it that during the war Allied aircraft found it impossible to score an exact hit as they attempted to cut off the German supply line to and from Cherbourg.

Viaduc de Souleuvre near Vire

Early photograph of the Viaduc de Souleuvre near Vire

Early photograph of the railway track across the Viaduc de Souleuvre near Vire

Back in Bayeux we tried to get into the spirit of Christmas as enjoyed by the French. However, they don't go in for rousing carols such as Hark the Herald or Good King Wenceslas. Instead we found ourselves sitting in a packed auditorium surrounded by parents and children watching a really naff play written for the little dears by one of the tutors at the municipal conservatoire. She even acted in it herself being a crocodile reduced to living on dandelions because the fish had deserted the rivers of Thailand. It took an hour of bad clarinet playing, discordant trumpets and an entire battery of scratchy violins providing the accompaniment to the child actors, before a little kiddy in a frothy frock had the bright idea of climbing onto some cardboard rocks and breaking off a chunk from the plastic moon dangling from a strip of andouilette in the corner. Miraculously the fish returned, the crocodile/teacher could stop eating dandelions, we could remove our earplugs and parents and siblings in the audience could dry their eyes and join in the slow handclapping that is so much a part of any French public performance. We joined in this with real enthusiasm until we realised it has the opposite meaning from England and is a sign that an encore is required!! The presenting of bouquets, congratulations and mayoral speeches lasted a further twenty minutes after which we raced hotfoot back to our flat and opened a bottle of beer while listening to our CD of carols from Kings College Cambridge. That was better!

Festive performance by the pupils of the municipal conservatoire, Bayeux

Next day there was an air of excitement around Bayeux. It was the last Saturday market before Christmas and people were buying their foie gras, cream, farm cheeses and cider. Chestnuts, mistletoe, fresh flowers, sprouts and clementines were piled high on the decorated stalls. Farmers stood on the crowded square, arms outstretched with a live turkey dangling head downwards from each hand while housewives came and felt their legs (the turkeys' legs I mean.)

Nearby we discovered an exhibition of "bandes dessinées", the ever popular comic strip art form. The artists were all local and were in residence, signing copies of their books and even drawing cartoons on the flyleaf. Ian bought one that was set in Bayeux, showing scenes from around the town as well as several sketches of the room displaying the Bayeux tapestry where the mystery was set. Other original drawings were from a comic book about the D-Day landings. Plenty of exciting material there and lots of "blamm blamm! zut alors!" and "choc choc!" as tanks, guns and grenades exploded. The mayor popped up again, looking more at ease than last night, to make a speech. This time we were invited to join in the festivities with a glass of cider, canapés with boudin or foie gras, quiches and a "pain surprise". This was indeed a revelation. We've never seen one before. The baker cooks a huge round loaf which is stood on end, the centre neatly hollowed out, thinly sliced, cut into wedges and spread with anything from cured ham, anchovy fillets or goats cheese to pate, rillettes or veal sausage with onion jam. These are packed back into the loaf and it's a complete surprise which flavour you may pick out.

We took a farewell coffee on the market square before returning home to pack up our life again into Modestine and prepare for leaving Bayeux. Outside the café hardy souls were sitting in the cold smoking and failing to keep warm with their tiny expresso coffees. Inside however it was warm, snug, crowded and completely smoke free! What a change the no smoking ban has brought. People sat reading the racing times at tiny table while the waitress squeezed around delivering beers, spirits and coffees to the chilly market stall holders and their customers. I just love the atmosphere of such places. By the time we left families were arriving for lunch, all squashed together around tightly packed tables. There was biftec et frites for grandad, blanquette de veau et ses legumes for the parents and ice cream and a burger for little Jean-Pierre who demanded strawberry sauce on one and tomato sauce on the other. It looked like the same bottle to us.

In the evening, gluttons for punishment, we joined the crowds heading for a concert of Chansons pour Noël. At last we thought we'd hear some carols. But, it was all held in the school sports hall where we sat shivering on hard benches as the rain splattered down on the tin roof. Meanwhile a series of local choirs sang on a little stage with their backs to half the audience. Some of them may well have been quite good but the acoustics were dreadful. It had to be better than the previous evening and we did actually hear a few strains of something that could have been "Come all ye Faithful." Surprisingly the slow handclapping was rather muted as we sat shivering at the end of the evening. Then the ever-busy mayor put in yet another appearance and declared the banquet open. Banquet? So that's why the clapping was fairly brief. Everyone was eager to warm up with a p'tit verre d'amitié and some home baked lemon cake! Two celebrations in one day! Everything was delicious and the atmosphere around us was of happiness and expectation that it would soon be Christmas.

We walked back to our flat through the dark streets. We still felt frustrated that any real sense of Christmas had evaded us but it had been a pleasant way to spend our last evening in Bayeux. As we gazed out from our lounge window over the brightly illuminated towers of the Cathedral we wondered why there had been no Christmas concerts there. It would have been superb and the acoustics far superior to a school sports hall.

The next day was Sunday. We were invited for lunch in Caen where Genviève's mother Germaine, her brother Yves and his son Camille joined us. We spent a happy and cheerful afternoon with these dear friends. Lunch was superb and gifts were exchanged around the Christmas tree. It really did feel as if Christmas was coming at last.

We took the night ferry from Ouistreham and woke to find ourselves docking at Portsmouth. By breakfast time we'd arrived with our friends Peter and Rosemary in Wilton. It was good to be home in England again for a while.

We reached Exeter by lunch time to discover a mountain of cards waiting for us. Thank you everyone who realised we'd be home to enjoy them. The next couple of days we frantically prepared for the happy few days we subsequently spent with Neil Jeev and Deyvika. Everything worked our okay and Christmas day saw us all sitting down to a traditional lunch with all the trimmings. Even Ian's cousin Margaret was able to join us and while we were lamenting that we forgot the Christmas crackers Kate phoned us from Buenos Aires. She'd arrived there from Chile a few hours before and although she and her friends had accommodation, as yet they'd found nowhere to get any food on Christmas day. We responded down the phone line with grunts and slurps as we tucked into chestnut stuffing, turkey and cranberry sauce together with a glass of St. Emilion – a gift from our Bayeux landlords Liz and Gordon.

Deyvi helps her mum decorate the Christmas tree, Exeter

Christmas finery

Ian's new research assistant