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 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 8: I Know I’m Awake But I feel like I’m in a Dream

This morning we got up at a decent time and hit up an adorable little bakery around the corner for breakfast. At Julie’s we had iced lattes, cuberdon steamed milk, cinnamon buns and scones with jam and cream. Feeling satisfied we hopped a train northbound to the fairytale town of Bruges (or Brugge). Bruges was a sleepier town until the 2008 hit movie “In Bruges” (highly recommend, unless you’re offended by the word “fuck”) came out and tourism has skyrocketed. Apparently Ghent and Bruges are bitter rivals.

We walked the kilometre from the train station to the main market square – along with gobs of other tourists and travelers, some stopping right in front of you and blocking the entire narrow sidewalk to get the perfect shot.

We got to the busy market square and things were hoppin’ – tourists, waiters, horse drawn buggies and food carts crammed every corner. We were feeling a little overwhelmed and a little disoriented, so we stopped for a beer.

After some beers in some pretty ridiculous bar ware, we started our Rick Steves walking tour, starting at the belfry (as seen in In Bruges).

They’ve boarded up some of the viewing points on the upper part of the Belfry, thanks to a particular scene from the movie. Bruges is capital of West Flanders and is encircled and connected by waterways, where swans and tour boats are king.

Ma didn’t get a waffle the last time she and Pa were in Bruges, so we stopped by Fred’s and each had a delicious Liege-style waffle.

After our sweet treats, we wandered around the old squares, ancient houses, former markets, breweries and abbeys.

Everywhere we turned there were people. And not just people, but tourists (like us). We decided that we wanted to do my favourite thing – boat tour!

Our boat captain/tour guide was hilarious, with a dry sense of humour and cracking wise in 3 different languages (I’m assuming he was funny in Dutch, I can only vouch for English and French).

After 30 minutes of putting around the moat, Pa and I decided we were thirsty and had noticed a neat looking brewery on our boat trip – Bourgogne de Flanders – so we tracked it down, each got a flight of 6 beers and grabbed a table at the hip brewery (some hits, some weird misses).

We were almost Bruges’d out, but Pa had something to show me – the Bottle Shop.

This shop is like Mecca for good beer fans – ceiling to floor, wall to wall of brews, including a whole section of krieks. Truly breath taking!

We headed back to the square and grabbed a cab back to the train station and trained back to Ghent, where we had some delicious pizza and pasta for dinner and headed back to the hotel.

There are quite a few articles on the internet about Bruges vs Ghent and here is my opinion – Bruges is beautiful and cute and it is a fairytale town for a lot to see and a fun boat tour, but I got the sense that the town itself is disingenuous – like it existed solely as a tourist town. I don’t know how many Belgians actually live there. Ghent is also beautiful and interesting, but it just seems like it’s more of an authentic Belgian experience, because so many of the people there are native Gentenaars and the town doesn’t feel like it exists for tourism, which is how I felt about Bruges. Bruges is not a fucking shit hole, but if it came down to the 2 towns, I’m on team Ghent.

Day 2: Golden Age

This morning we knew we would not need alarm clocks because the same jet-lagged sleep happens to us every year – in bed super early, awake super early.  This morning I was awake by 0430hrs and Ma and Pa were already awake.  We decided to get up and leisurely get ready for breakfast (served at 0700hrs) and the day exploring Delft. The breakfast served by our hotel was delightful and everything we would ever need – strong coffee, Dutch pancakes and fresh, buttery croissants.  We finished by about 0745hrs and hit the town.

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Because we were up and about so early, we had a lot of the old town to ourselves as well as beautiful early morning light.  It’s definitely autumn in Delft as there is a chill in the air, but the sun is still warm.

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Delft is such an adorable town.  Around every corner is another canal, another flowered storefront, another cafe.

As 0900hrs neared, the city started to come alive with bicycle traffic picking up, and people whipping through the streets on their velocipeds, taking kids to school, heading to school, or heading to work.

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The first thing that we wanted to see this morning was the Oude Kerk, or Old Church.  The Oude Kerk is a large, brick, pre-Reformation structure with construction beginning in 1239 and lasting 400 years.  One of the biggest draws of the church is it is the final resting place of Delft’s native son, Johannes Vermeer (remember, of Girl with the Pearl Earring fame).  Apparently Vermeer died very poor and left his wife with a lot of debt, but she still wanted to bury him in the Oude Kerk, so they originally buried him vertically.  Later, when Delft decided that Vermeer was in fact, a big deal, they dug him up and gave him a proper burial.

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I found the Oude Kerk to be less than impressive – sparse and underwhelming.

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The next thing we (mostly I) wanted to do was a canal boat tour.  I love boat tours because it’s a great way to see the city from a different perspective and you usually learn a bit from the tour guide.

The first boat tour left at 1100hrs and we had not spent a lot of time in the Oude Kerk, so we had more time to kill.  By this time we were gingerly dodging cyclists left and right.  The cyclist culture here is quite different from what I’m used to in the Lower Mainland (either super aggressive Vancouver cyclists, or scabby homeless people who you know damn well didn’t pay for that bike that they’re riding around that residential neighbourhood).

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In order to pass more time, we went to the market square and grabbed a delicious coffee at a cute little shop called Bagels and Beans.  We sipped our drinks and watched vendors set up their stalls for the day in the square.

 

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We finished up and settled up and slowly walked towards the boat moorage.  I just couldn’t get enough photos of canals, bikes on canals, tree-lined canals.

We got to the boat, paid our tickets and climbed aboard, a 45 minute jaunt through the canal system.  Our tour guide’s name was Ellen and she was graduating from the University of Delft in Engineering and Policy.  Delft is actually a university town as 1 out of 5 residents in the city are students.  We passed by beautiful buildings of brick facade, windows and shutters and learned that many of them were actually student housing.  It made me think fondly of some of my lodging when I attended the University of British Columbia – damp, partially-carpeted hovels barely legal suites boasting hot plates and 30 year old microwaves, deep in the heart of Point Grey.

Other fun facts we learned from Ellen:

• Many of the canals are lined with ropes.  Why?  Not to help people who have drunkenly fallen into the canals, but to assist cats that fall in.

• The residents of Delft used to be charged more taxes if you have more windows in your front facade.  Many wealthy people would install more windows to show off how rich they are.

• Students who graduate from Engineering often have their bicycles tossed into the canal by fellow students as a way of signifying that they will be making more money and can therefore afford a car.  The city fishes out 300-400 bikes every year and resells them to make money for the city.

After the tour was over and I had shot enough smouldering glares to the dumb old men who talked/laughed through the English part of the tour, we found we were a bit peckish.  Ma wanted to try and restaurant we had read about in Lonely Planet called Kek, which offers up fresh and healthy fare.  This place was everything that a hipster would love – lots of kitsch, lots of avocado on the menu, and lots of young people with questionable fashion.  I ended up having a BLTA and a delightful blood orange lemonade.

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Our afternoon plan was to head to the Royal Delft Factory and do the tour, followed by copious coin dropping at the gift shop.  The only problem is that we were losing steam so by the time we got a cab there, saw two huge tour busses in front, we decided to forego the tour and instead go straight to the gift shop.  The shop was an enormous 2-room operation, filled wall to wall and ceiling to floor with white and blue porcelain.  Ma and I both picked out a few items, paid, and the PAID for them to be shipped back home to Canada, as we didn’t want to haul around delicate porcelain items for the rest of our trip.

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We discovered that the factory had an adorable little cafe that served Delft Blue’s own beer called Delft Brew, so of course we had to try some (it was pretty good!).

We headed back to our hotel for a siesta as we were all pretty low on energy.  An hour later we headed literally across the canal from our hotel to the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) to check it out as well.  This church was built in 1351, so not so much ‘new church’ as it is ‘newer than the Old Church’.

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The church again was underwhelming, but its claim to fame is that it is the final resting place of William of Orange, who is seen as the father of the nation.  The tomb is quite garish and ugly, but the people decide they couldn’t have a plain burial for the Founder of the Netherlands, unlike all the chumps buried in the floor.

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After we spent maybe 15 minutes in the church, we hit the square again to revisit the cheese shop we popped into yesterday.  The shop keep was so eager and flirtatious that I couldn’t even say no to all the goat cheese samples he was offering me, and I HATE goat cheese.  After learning that you can bring the cheese back to Canada and it can be unrefridgerated for a month, we bought a couple of wheels of Gouda and went and found a brasserie that has Grolsh on tap, where we ate, drank, and headed home to bed, in a valiant attempt to stay up past 2100hrs.

Day 1: Leaving on a Jet Plane

Welcome to the DeCaigny Abroad trip blog for 2018: Windmills, Wallonia, World Wars and Waffles!  This year is a very special trip for me because I get to visit the land where the DeCaigny’s come from – Normandy and Flanders – and we get to meet some relatives.

Our trip started off pretty easily – got the YVR with plenty of time, breezed through check in and security, had some late lunch and a coffee, then found our gate with a myriad of other silver haired folks (I joked with Ma and Pa that they must feel like they’re flying with their people).  At one point and woman approached me and asked ‘Are you Kelly?’  As it turns out, one of my girlfriends at work has a friend who was taking the flight, and told her to ‘look for the girl with the blue hair’.  We chatted with Anya for a bit and then it was time to board.  The flight was pretty uneventful and after 8 1/2 hours and 2 subpar meals for what we’re used to from KLM, we landed at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport at noon.  We did the usual airport stuff – disembarked, went through customs (‘you’re here for a month?  You’re going to be here for your birthday!’) grabbed our luggage and bought our train tickets for our first home base – Delft.  When we started planning this trip, we quickly discovered that staying in Amsterdam would cost a small fortune, so we chose to stay in Delft – known as “Little Amsterdam” – it has all the charm and canals of the big city, just smaller, less busy and much less expensive.

The trains in the Netherlands are plentiful and efficient – like those in Germany.  Our jaunt to Delft took about 45 minutes and we even spied a beautiful old windmill!  We grabbed a taxi and told him the name of our hotel – De Emauspoort.  The first thing he said was ‘Perfect location!’  We drove past old brick houses and snaking canals and took a turn down an absolutely adorable street:

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This is the street our hotel is on and it was everything I was hoping and dreaming it would be = quaint, with bikes and flowers everywhere you looked.

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We checked in and found that we were staying in the ‘Vermeer Suite’.  One of the things that Delft is famous for is the birthplace (and famous resting place) of painter Johannes Vermeer, whose greatest hit is probably The Girl with the Pearl Earring.  The room is decorated in the old Dutch style, up a flight of very challenging stairs, and adorned with prints by the Dutch master himself.  We dropped our gear and hit the town in a attempt to stay vertical for as long as possible.

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The other thing that Delft is famous for is ‘Delft Blue’ or ‘Royal Delft’ – a style of pottery characterized by blue ink on white porcelain.  There were shops all around the main square (or Markt) filled to the brim with dishes, tiles and other trinkets depicting very Dutch scenes (windmills, row houses, clogs).

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We picked a little restaurant and Pa and decided to indulge in our first brews (of what will be many, many brews) on the square.

A note about Dutch people so far – I was nervous because I had read a BBC article about how the Dutch are known for being very direct, and I’m very sensitive, but so far the Dutch people we’ve met have been very friendly, eager to chat and interested in Canada.

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We finished our drinks and took a brief walk around the square.  Pa and I decided we wanted to check out a cheese shop, because we both really enjoy Gouda.  As it turns out, this cheese shop was the place to be, the Baskin Robbins of cheese as they had 31 different flavours of Gouda, all available to sample.

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After sampling some delicious Gouda (we’ll be back there) I bought some postcards from a Delft Blue shop and we tucked in for some dinner, which I could barely stay awake through.  After a 2 minute walk back to our hotel, I uploaded some photos to instagram between nodding off and hitting my head on the table.  I gave up on the idea of a blog post for that night, and apparently climbed into bed (which I don’t remember doing).

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