Day 19: Back in Black

Today we were up, breakfasted and out the door at a decent time to head back into France (technically, Canadian soil) for a couple more things to see – Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial is an hour out of Poelkapelle, and as you drive through the nearby town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, you can see the two white columns poking from behind the the trees on the hill.

We parked in the memorial’s lot and walked up to the limestone monument.

The monument itself was designed by Walter Seymour Allward and built out of white limestone from the Adriatic. There are 2 tall pillars sculpted with 20 human figures which personify things like “Peace” and “Justice”. The focal point is a woman draped in a cloak, looking mournfully down at a tomb. This is “Canada Bereft” or “Mother Canada”, mourning the generation lost.

Also inscribed around the whole monument are the names of 11,169 Canadian soldiers who fought in France and have no know grave. I found some last names of people I know (no one from our family, as we probably weren’t even Canadian citizens yet).

Although the Battle of Vimy wasn’t a huge battle, it carried some strategic significance (as we saw standing on the hill, you and see everything around you for miles), but it was very significant for Canadian identity and presence on the world stage. Vimy was the first time that all 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps worked and coordinated together and was completely planned by Canadians. They also successfully demonstrated new tactics and techniques that helped them win the hill. By the end of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 3,598 Canadians did not make it out.

After paying our respects at the monument, we walked over to the interpretive centre and trenches and tunnels. You can still walk around the trenches, and there are Canadian student volunteers around who will answer any questions.

After finishing up in the trenches, we walked back to the car, ate our picnic lunch and headed to another French site that I wanted to see – Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. The site is 45 minutes south west of Vimy, and along the poppy-lined country roads were many many war cemeteries, mostly British.

The reason I wanted to go to Beaumont-Hamel is because my sister had gone a few years ago and told me the story and I remember having a very visceral reaction – on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, along with other battalions the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of the trenches after heavy bombardment against the Germans, expecting very little return fire from what they thought would be a decimated German line. What they didn’t know was the the Germans had dug deep into the hill side and were almost totally unaffected by the bombardment, so when the Allies went over, it was an absolute massacre. Most Newfoundlander casualties occurred within the first 15 minutes of the fighting. Of the 780 Royal Newfoundlanders who went over, only 68 were there for roll call the next morning.

To honour the brave Regiment, a bronze caribou was erected on the battlefield, along with plants and flowers native to Newfoundland and a plaque commemorating the dead.

The caribou is the insignia for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and this one is pointing in the direction of where the chlorine gas came from.

We admired the Caribou for a while then decided it was a pretty heavy day and time to head back to Poelkapelle, saying goodbye to France for the last time.

Day 17: And it Burns Burns Burns…

This was our last full day in France before leaving for Ypres, Belgium tomorrow, and I was excited for our plans – we were checking out the capital of Normandy, Rouen. Rouen is famous for two things – its staggering gothic Notre Dame Cathedral, and the execution site of Jeanne d’Arc, known to us anglos as Joan of Arc.

After escaping an insufferable Torontonian couple at breakfast, we hit the road south east, our first stop being an abbey in a small town called Jumièges. The town itself is adorable and quaint, like so many other Norman towns, and the tops of the abbey is visible from a few kilometres out. We parked and headed in.

The abbey was a Bénédictine institution built in the 7th century, burned to the ground by Vikings in the 10th century, and rebuilt and consecrated by William the Conqueror in 1067.

We wandered around the grounds and admired the white stone against the bright green grass. Every angle and every turn was a wonderful photograph, especially with the partially cloudy sky.

The reason the abbey was in ruins was not because of neglect or disuse, but because during the French Revolution, the monks were chased from the abbey and the abbey itself was slowly chiseled at as stone and materials were needed.

We finally made the decision to leave (we could have stayed there all day) and headed even more south for Rouen.

A British couple staying at the B&B the same time as us advised that when they went to Rouen they parked at a park and ride and took the bus into town. We decided to make it our plan too. We parked near an arena, hopped on the bus into town and got off at the stop “Cathédrale”.

The Cathédrale Notre Dame is a gothic masterpiece, at one point the tallest building in the world (surpassed by Köln Cathedral). I was mostly interested in it because of impressionist painter Claude Monet’s set of paintings of the Cathédrale, using the differing light of different parts of the day and weather as the subject. We quickly grabbed some lunch and then went inside, peering at the tomb of Rollo and the marble slab that kept Richard the Lionheart’s heart.

We left the Cathédrale and headed down the pedestrian-only street, lined with half-timbered Norman houses, and eventually the Gros Horloge, or “big clock”.

Through the clock and wading through the people and beggars with their dogs, we got to the old market square. The main focal point of the square is now a supremely bizarre 1970s church dedicated to Joan of Arc. Its design is to make it look like flames (I didn’t get a photo, it was enormous). Around some construction fencing we found the poorly labeled spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy at the age of 19. We thought because it was one of the city’s claim to fame, there would be a well marked monument or something, but it turns out, as did Rouen itself, it left us disappointed.

We bought our normal stable of tchotchkes and wandered in search for a cute crêperie.

We found a decent place, had some dessert, and walked back to the Cathédrale, and towards the bus.

I’m sad to say that I was actually pretty disappointed in Rouen. I was expecting it to be charming and friendly, but instead I found it cold, grimy and dirty. Yes, the half timbered houses were beautiful, but the streets were filthy and busy.

I’m ready to leave France, but I’m sad to be leaving our B&B. Marc and Sébastien have been such warm, friendly, earnest and interesting hosts. If you ever go to Normandy, stay at À La Maison Blanche in Fécamp.

Day 16: I’ve Got Nothing To Do Today But Smile

Today we didn’t make any real plans, as we were all feeling drained and sluggish from the previous day. Over breakfast, one of our lovely hosts Marc suggested we visit a seaside town called Veules-les-Roses not far from here, and to take the seaside route. We decided it sounded like a nice time, so we head out. The towns we drove through were beautiful, but some almost like ghost towns – we didn’t see anyone walking around or any open businesses.

We got into Veules-les-Roses and found a parking spot near the water, and walked the boardwalk.

On either side of Veules-les-Roses, the alabaster cliffs stretched out as far as the eye could see. The water was blue but looked cold, but this did not stop people from taking a dip.

It started to heat up quite a bit, so we grabbed a boardwalk-side table and ordered some beers and crêpes. After lunch we strolled back to the car and headed back to Fécamp to explore some of the hills.

Atop Fécamp’s east cliffs sits a church dedicated to sailors and mariners, as well as some WWII observation bunkers. Unfortunately the church was closed for renovations and repairs, but we took in the view and went for a walk nonetheless.

We walked around and looked at the German ruins, but it soon got too hot so we headed back to the car and back to our B&B. We were all feeling weary, so we grabbed a few beers that we had brought with us and went to read in the library until it was time for dinner, then bed.

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.