Day 15: They Walk With You

Today we got up pretty early, as it was going to be a busy and emotional day. We were starting out the day by visiting Juno Beach.

For those of you unawares, there were 5 beaches stormed on June 6th, 1944 marking the start of the Battle of Normandy in WWII – the American forces stormed Omaha and Utah, the British stormed Gold and Sword, and Canada stormed Juno. Canada recently built an interpretive centre at Juno Beach, with Canadian employees running the exhibits.

It was a 1 hour and 45 minute drive west for us, and Ma and I peppered Pa, our resident historian with questions about the war and Canada’s role.

Juno Beach fronts a beautiful fishing town, Benières-Sur-Mer. We got into town and to the Centre and wandered the grounds.

After wandering, we decided to head down to the beach itself.

I was honestly very apprehensive about how to feel. I knew that Juno is a very sacred place to Canadians and a very emotional spot, and my brain recognizes that, but I was afraid I wouldn’t feel anything, standing in the spot where 359 brave Canadian souls fought and died on that day in 1944.

The beach itself is beautiful – sandy and warm with blue water and shells dotting the tide lines – but it was eerily quiet. There were some fisherman down the way casting their lines, but other than that it was me, Ma and Pa. All you could hear is the lapping of the waves on the shore. It was as if every living and kinetic being knew what had happened there and was paying their respects – the birds, the ocean, the grass. It was tangible.

We walked along the beach silently And watched the high tide, and went into the Juno Beach Centre and looked at the exhibits – posters, literature, radio broadcasts, donated relics, uniforms and medals from the period. The walls filled with facts and stories, and boards with the stories of Victoria Cross recipients all along the way. The exhibit ends with a video of footage of D-Day and voice over of Canadian letters written home. The ending, showing soldiers disappearing from photos and ending with the words “They walk with you/dans leur pas” is when my emotions got the better of me and I just let the tears stream freely down my face. I would like to think that I feel emotional about it because I work so closely with people who have served in the Canadian Forces and I care about them, but I think it’s more because I cannot process the heroism of very young men who volunteered in a time of need and were lost, and their families and friends who had to continue on without them. Maybe it’s both.

After we finished up at Juno Beach, we headed 10 minutes down the road to the outskirts of a town called Bény-Sur-Mer. Here is where the French government donated a square of land to Canada and is the final resting place for 2,048 Canadians who we lost at the beginning of the Battle of Normandy.

As we were pulling in, another car was leaving so we were alone with the white grave markers and maple trees. We signed the visitors book and silently walked the graves.

Each white marker features a maple leaf, a name and a date. They also featured either crosses, a Star of David or nothing, and many had words from their families inscribed at the bottom. The rows of markers are dotted with flowering plants.

What really struck me about the cemetery is that it’s not your typical spooky, sinister and grim graveyard, although it is still haunting. The cemetery was teeming with life – trees, flowers, buzzing bees, butterflies and chirping birds. There was serene life to the grounds, as if imploring us to celebrate the peace that the cemetery’s residents fought and died for us to have. For any proud Canadian, it is a must-visit.

Our next destination was a gorgeous seaside escape called Arromanches-les-Bains. We were headed there to see the mulberry harbour and caissons still visible in the ocean. This is where the British constructed an enormous portable and floating harbour in order to send fuel and supplies to the troops fighting in the Battle of Normandy.

Driving towards Arromanches-les-Bains we noticed French, British, American and Canadian flags flying in the distance, so we drove towards them to see what was there. Turns out a large panoramic viewing platform had been built and part of the harbour was on display.

We soon realized it was way past lunchtime, so we headed into the town for some food. In the town proper there are several large firearms, including a German 88, which Pa totally nerded out on.

Our next stop and the westernmost part of the day was outside a town called Longues-sur-Mer. Longues-sur-Mer is about 15 minutes west of Arromanches-les-Bains, still very close to the ocean and is the site of a German fun battery, 3 1/2 of which are still intact and the guns are still in place.

One thing that I noticed at the sites we visited, including Juno Beach, is from what I could hear most of the other visitors were French. I expected some Americans and maybe a couple Canadians, but mostly Parisian French as far as I could discern from my sleuthing abilities.

Our final stop was one of the key operations in the Allies succeeding in the Battle of Normandy and that was at Pegasus Bridge. Pegasus Bridge was originally known as Bénouville Bridge crosses the Caen Canal and was controlled by the Germans. In the wee early morning hours of just barely June 6th, 1944, 3 Horsa Gliders of the 6th Battalion commanded by Major John Howard and packed with a total of 90 armed soldiers and engineers silently landed with almost pinpoint precision and within yards of each other and took the Bridge from the Germans in a matter of 10 minutes. Major Howard and company successfully held the bridge and kept it intact until reinforcements arrived at 0300hrs the next day.

The bridge was rename Pegasus Bridge, as the flying horse was the insignia of the 6th Battalion. The cafe on the bank is considered the first French house liberated. The reason for why the capture of the bridge played such a crucial role, is that it limited German counter attack with the landing and advancing of the Allied forces from the beaches.

And with that, the sun was setting on us, so we headed back to Fécamp to indulge in beer, frites and crêpes and then bed.

By the end of the Battle of Normandy, over 5,000 Canadian heroes laid down their lives. Thank you for your service.

Day 14: Once Upon a Time There Was An Ocean

This morning we got up leisurely, had a casual political discussion with a German twenty-something and our French host at the breakfast table and hit the road , west again, this time for the adorable old fishing port town of Honfleur. When I asked Ma and Pa what there is to see there, they said “uh…it’s just a cute town.”

The drive was a relatively short one and we eventually found a good parking lot close to the Old Harbour in Honfleur. The walk was short and pretty soon we were surrounded in all of Honfleur’s charms.

The main attraction of the town is the old harbour, lined with beautiful sailboats in the water and beautiful Norman buildings on land.

We hobbled around the old quay, admiring the beautiful boats, taking the same photo 37 times because “it’s so cute”, and steeling our ankles against the uneven cobble stones.

Down every alley and around every street was another picturesque scene featuring cobblestones, half timbered Norman houses, window boxes full of flowers and shop windows full of striped, nautical themes apparel.

An interesting little nugget about Honfleur is that it was the casting off point for both of Samuel de Champlain’s voyages to the New World (Canada), including the 1608 voyage where he founded Québec City.

Another interesting part of Honfleur is Ste Catherine’s Church. It was built in the second half of the 15th century by master ship makers, which is why the roof looks like and upside down ship. There were no saws used, and measurements were dicey. It is a cool looking church though.

We grabbed lunch at a seaside eatery where we had burgers and crêpes and we found out what a panaché is (beer+ginger ale) and I dared Pa or Ma to order the horse steak (no takers).

After lunch we wandered more, buying the obligatory fridge magnets/postcards/shot glasses and poking our noses into the many chocolate shops before indulging in delicious ice cream and hitting the road home for an early night.

Day 13: I Climbed a Mountain and I Turned Around

This morning we were up bright and early for our longest day of commuting as we were visiting the furthest edge of Normandy – the Mont Saint-Michel. The Mont itself is considered Normandy and the surrounding area is Brittany, but I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. Anyway.

The 3 hour drive passed pretty quickly as I had downloaded a few podcasts for us to listen to. Finally, we spotted Saint-Michel atop the spire in the distance and the agneau pré-salé (pre-salted lamb. The sheep that graze close to the Mont eat salt marsh meadow and become pre-salted) and closed in. Mont Saint-Michel recently built a boulevard stretching from the islet to solid ground, with lots of parking and a free shuttle (no one else wanted to pay the 6€ to take the horse drawn carriage ride with me), so we hopped on the shuttle for our ride to the Mont.

So the story goes (in very lay terms) that the Bishop of Avranches had a vision or premonition that St. Michael (or Saint Michel en Français) instructed him to build an abbey on the rock in the middle of the bay. So he did. The abbey started pretty modestly and was built up through the centuries to the stunning sight it is today. It also changed hands between the Normans and the Bretagnes several times.

The lower levels of the island was once a village but is now a bustling hub of overpriced restaurants (I paid 4€ for a Coke Zero) and tchotchkes as far as the eye could see. The streets were crowded with people like us, gawking at the architecture and craning our necks and cameras to get that perfect shot.

Once you hit a certain spot the ramp changes to stairs, so for someone like me whose fitness journey can only be described as “Odysseun”, it was like going from 20 minutes on the treadmill on “incline”, to the stair master.

The good part about climbing all those stone steps (besides quads of steel) was that the higher you got, the more the crowds thinned out.

We made our way finally to the very top (there was a portable “heart attack” kit affixed to the wall, with defibrillator and everything) and entered the abbey.

The abbey itself is very plain and very basic – not the high drama that you would expect to see in a Baroque Catholic Church.

My favourite part was definitely the cloister with the outdoor garden – quiet and peaceful.

We spent as much time as we could enjoying the panoramic views of the bay and the mouth of the Seine river, talking about how quickly the tides come in and how soft the sand is (Mont Saint Michel sees about 8 casualties a year from people who try and beat/don’t know about the tides). We even got to watch a helicopter move sand?

After thoroughly exploring the abbey, the village and overpaying for lunch (a bottle of beer cost me 9€), we called it a day and started the 3 hour trek back to Fécamp, indulging in gas station bistro sandwiches and pop (Pa had a mojito flavoured 7-Up) before hitting the hay.

Day 12: Yes We’re Going to a Party Party

Today is my birthday, and as such, I got to choose 2 of our 3 main activities. I entreat you to guess which one was not my idea.

The Normandy area of France is famous for a few culinary delights – Camembert, mussels, butter, caramel and cider/calvados. I had discovered months ago that a cidery in a small village called Rots offered a generous Sunday morning brunch, and thought it would a fun alternative to birthday dinner. So we got up and hit the very soggy road (it ended up raining all day) westbound towards La Ferme de Billy. The village of Rots itself is adorable – stone buildings, lantern-like street lamps and the obligatory church with graveyard. We pulled into the well-marked cidery and it was beautiful, and the inside was even better – rustic yet modern decoration with a “salty” buffet table, a “sweet” buffet table and a bottle of home made apple juice on every table. The hostess seated us and encouraged us to get up and fill our plates, but we sat, a little shell shocked by the sheer amount and variety of food.

Some of my favourite things that I ate – bacon quiche, cauliflower au gratin, speculoos mousse, crème brûlée and a brownie.

After we could quite literally eat no more, we waddled out to the car and headed another soaking 20 minutes west towards the town of Bayeux. Bayeux is a beautiful town, but it most famous for – tapestry. Apparently, technically it’s an embroidery, but the reason why this “tapestry” is so remarkable is twofold- its age (11th century) and size (70m or 230 feet long). The whole thing depicts the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror and culminates with Harold getting an arrow to the eye. No photos were allowed and I was VERY sceptical about view a really big and really old cloth, but the audio guide made it pretty worthwhile- the British man’s voice and clear enthusiasm for medieval handicrafts paired with the jaunty period motet made for an interesting viewing.

We got drenched walking back to the car and headed further west for our final destination – Caramels d’Isigny. It seems to be a pretty popular brand in the area, but when I read that at the main shop and factory you can get caramel ice cream covered in salted butter caramel sauce, my mind was made up.

The shop (or Halles) was enormous and full of different caramel and creamy treats – candies, sauces, toppings and a fromagerie. We shopped the aisles and picked out some candies and sauces for ourselves, before finally hitting the ice cream stand. The ice cream was everything I wanted it to be.

Stuffed again, we headed back towards Fécamp, where we decided to split the bottle of Pommeau we bought at La Ferme de Billy and toasted my 35 years.

Day 11: White Caps on a Sea of Blue

I woke up this morning after a fantastic sleep and headed down to a delightful breakfast provided by our wonderful hosts, including a myriad of delicious homemade jams and apple juice. We piled into our VW and hit the road towards another seaside town called Étretat, 20 minutes west of Fécamp. I wanted to go to Étretat because it features some really beautiful and interesting coastal rock formations. The drive there was again very picturesque – green hills, quaint villages, cows cows cows.

We took a sharp turn and headed up a steep hill and found parking, bundled up and wandered out onto the cliffs.

The main point of interest in the formations is the one called “l’aiguille”, or “the needle”. It was windy and sky was moody and it was a truly breathtaking sight.

The tops of the cliffs feature rocky winding paths and in the typical European fashion, no safety railings to be seen (if you get too close to the edge and fall over, it’s your own dumb fault). We wandered and meandered, admiring the cliffs, ocean, flora, fauna, and a single white-sailed sail boat on the water.

We had all taken about 200 of the same photo of the cliffs and decided it was time to hit the beach. We got back in the car and headed town to the town of Étretat, found a créperie/pizzeria, had some lunch and headed to the beach. Étretat, like Fécamp has a pebble beach, but does not have as much as a natural protected harbour as Fécamp.

Along the promenade are fact placards about French Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his paintings featuring Étretat and its alabaster cliffs.

As we got closer to the “Needle”, we noticed that there were a fair deal of surfers and stand up paddle boarders in the water, braving the winds and chilly waters.

The rain started picking up so we headed back to our car and drove back to Fécamp.

One of the points of interest of Fécamp is that it is the home of the Palais Bénédictine, a gothic/Renaissance/Art Deco structure that not only houses Bénédictine monks, but is the only distillery in the world of the liqueur Bénédictine. I had no previous knowledge of this liqueur prior to planning our trip, but when I mentioned it to Pa, he was pretty keen, which is part of the reason we chose Fécamp as our Normandy home base.

What we didn’t know is that the Palais houses a wealth of old liturgical relics, art and artefacts, as well as old Art Deco print ads for the liqueur.

We perused the artefacts and ancient letters on our own, but had to join a group tour for the distillery portion. The distilling seems like quite the time consuming process, taking 2 years of macerating, heating and ageing 27 herbs and spices in their basement and cellars until the elixir is bottled.

There have been many many imitations, but the only real Bénédictine is distilled in this one location.

After touring the cellar it was time for a sample, and we could choose between classic Bénédictine, B&B (Bénédictine and Brandy) and Bénédictine single cask. Given there were 3 samples and 3 of us, we all got a different sample so we could share. My apologies to the monks who saved the recipe during the scattering of their props during the French Revolution, but I am not a fan of Bénédictine.

After Pa helped us finish our samples, we hit up the local grocery store and boulangerie for a baguette, some cider, éclairs and gummy bears and brought them back to our B&B where we sat in the dining room, tore apart the baguette and smothered it in salted butter and emptied the bottle of cider. We then retired to our rooms to read and rest before a busy day tomorrow.

Day 10: I’m Free as a Bird

This morning we got up early to catch a cab to a car rental place to pick up our car for the France leg of our trip. We were really sad to be leaving Ghent (and the beer), but excited for a completely different portion.

We got to Europcar and picked up our little white Volkswagen Golf 4-door. The clerk at the office was very interested in our trip and when we mentioned we would be going to Ypres, he put his hand over his heart, clearly very emotional, and said to us that it was a special place and still hangs heavy in the heart of Belgians, and that we will feel the emotion when we get there.

We hooked up my phone to the USB in our rental, and turns out it’s equipped with Apple Car Play, so navigating and playing music from my phone was super easy. We plotted the course for our lunch destination, Boulogne-Sur-Mer on the French coast and we hit the road.

The flat Belgian countryside eventually gave way to green rolling hills and farmlands of France, dotted by brick farmhouses and cows. After 2 hours we rolled into Boulogne-Sur-Mer. We chose a random patisserie that we came across and lucked out – pastries, desserts, breads, sandwiches – all the things. Pa and I each had a delicious fresh sandwich and Ma had a fruit salad and pain au chocolat. We bought a couple of treats and bottles of water for the road and headed on a slight detour to Harley Davidson Côte d’opale so Pa could buy a t-shirt, and continued on our trek west.

The countryside got more and more beautiful the farther west we went, and it was times like this I truly treasure – adventuring with my folks, gorgeous scenery, Otis Redding pumping on the stereo. After about 2 hours, we saw a sign for a rest stop, so we pulled aside to eat our treat. The rest stop, as it turns out, was a slight divot in the grass beside a picnic bench and a pasture of cows. The wind had really picked up, so we ate our treats quickly and hopped back into the warm car.

An hour later, around 1700hrs we pulled into Fécamp, our cute little seaside town for the next 8 nights. We’re staying at a bed and breakfast called A La Maison Blanche, a wonderful little establishment with immaculate themed rooms (we got the China suite. There’s red toilet paper.) and wonderful warm hosts, Marc and Sébastien. We hauled our luggage up the flights of stairs, grabbed our cameras and hit the beach.

Fécamp is an old fishing town nestled in between the white cliffs of the Côte d’alabatre and fronted by a pebble beach. With the wind whipping our hair and the salty sea spray into our faves, we strolled along the promenade.

The Channel waters were rough and very choppy, but we did spot someone windsurfing in the distance. Apparently on a clear day, you can see England.

We found a seaside restaurant and had some dinner and returned to A La Maison Blanche, I hopped in the hot rain shower to rinse the salt from my body, and climbed into bed.

Day 9: Nothing Compares 2 U

Today was our last full day in Ghent and our last day in Belgium for a little over a week, as tomorrow we’ll be heading into the Normandy area of France. I’m really excited to see Normandy but I’m very sad to be leaving Ghent, it has left quite the impression on me.

We were all feeling lazy this morning, so we slowly got ready, and Ma and Pa headed to the post office to mail back some gifts we have accumulated. I headed to this great little cafe called Wasbar for a bizarro breakfast – speculoos latte, orange juice, pain au chocolate, one egg, cheese, 3 pieces of toast, butter, jam and chocolate spread. It was a weird combo, but also delicious.

One of Pa’s travel traditions is that he likes to collect Harley Davidson t-shirts from where ever we visit, so while he grabbed a cab and headed to the shop, Ma and I wandered and chatted about travel to come. We met Pa an hour later, now getting close to lunch time and headed to our new favourite haunt, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for a last hurrah there (this included a few beers). After the beers we headed back into one of the many great squares, and Pa and I had some frites from Peter’s and Ma had a waffle with caramel.

Ma had decided that she wanted to head back to St Bavo’s Cathedral to get some photos of the dramatic alter piece (Catholics, am I right?) so we all went, the cool Cathedral a welcome respite from the increasingly aggressive afternoon sun.

We decided for old time’s sake to get a few chocolates from the gourmet chocolatery (I got whipped coffee cream and creme brûlée), grabbed a bench in St Bavo’s square and watched the bubble man delight the children.

I decided that this guy has a great job. He doesn’t really have to talk to anyone, I’ll be let no one calls him an asshole, he doesn’t have coworkers who conspire against him. He just grabs his bucket of suds, his homemade bubble wand, sets out his hat and stands in the square, entertaining eager children. Benefits are probably shit, though.

Ma wanted some introvert recharge time, so while she went back to the hotel, Pa and I went to this other bar we had been eyeing, the outdoor portion wedged between 2 buildings and quite literally right on the canal. Had a taken one step to the left, I would have been wet.

While Pa and I were imbibing away the afternoon, a husband and wife in a kayak paddled up to the bar, right at our feet. The husband got out of the kayak (with Pa’s help), went in to the bar and came out with 2 bottles of kriek beer, 2 glasses and a role of duct tape. With his wife still in the kayak, he took out the duct tape, wrapped it around his wife’s sleeve and then to the brick ground. He literally taped his wife to the ground. He then poured their beers, they enjoyed them, and he was back in the kayak, un-taping his wife, then paddling on their merry way. It was one of the weirdest and most hilarious things I’ve seen in a while. I’d tried to stealthily grab some snaps on my phone:

After finishing off a second round, it was time to meet Ma at the Castle of the Counts for some more photos, followed by a traditional Flemish dinner of frites, waterzooi stew and meatballs.

We wandered back to our hotel, drinking in this wonderful city for the last time.