“I had thought I could not sleep, but the pull of exhaustion was too much, and I slipped beneath the surface, with scarcely a ripple.” – Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber
I promise the quote above will make sense by the end of this post. I also promise, simultaneously, that this post will not put you to sleep. I hope.
Writing about this particular trip is a completely different exercise from the last one because I actually kept a nightly-ish journal at the time which helps to throw me right back into the action of 2015’s French Adventure. Though I am not planning on reproducing the journal word-by-word, rest assured that the most thoughtful and evocative descriptions will be kept to bring this journey to life as vividly as possible.
It seems that the first journal entry begins the day after we arrived as, in my own words, I had no pretense of energy the night before with which to write. I do recall it being an extremely long day with no sleep whatsoever and I remember telling myself I really needed to learn how to sleep on a plane (spoiler alert: I only learnt this skill once I got pregnant and by this point it wasn’t so much learned as necessitated).
But, I digress. Back to France.
After an uneventful flight, my Dad and I got in our rental car immediately after making it through security and began our trek to our first B&B just outside of Avranches in Normandy, some 300km south-west of Paris where we had landed.
I had a horribly splitting headache that morning from the initial stress of our travel the day before compounded with the complete lack of sleep overnight on the plane. Anyone who suffers from migraines or tension headaches can probably tell you how near-impossible it is to function at all depending on the severity of each attack. I tried to stay cheery and alert for Dad’s sake, I knew he was exhausted too having only gotten some 3 hours of sleep himself. And he needed to (exclusively) do the driving as we had rented a standard! Definitely the cheaper option but I wonder to this day if Dad doesn’t regret undertaking 2 weeks of driving on his own…
We ended up having to pull off the highway about halfway as he could barely keep his eyes open and we slept an hour or so in the parking lot of one of their versions of an “On Route”. I would have been embarrassed at the public snoozing but there were several truck and van drivers doing the same thing – so I ended up more jealous of their curtains than anything!
Heading back on the road, my headache (finally) began to subside and I was able to provide Dad with what I hoped was slightly better company. I also benefited not only from the slight lack of pain but also from the ability to enjoy the sights of the Norman countryside – which was truly spectacular. Hard to imagine what it must have looked like after the World Wars, though WWII in particular. All that beauty and natural serenity laid to waste thanks to the arrogance of humanity. (Note – I do understand that Hitler and his cronies needed to be stopped, and this is not to diminish the feats of bravery by those who set out to do so. But, I’m sorry, I will never understand the wastefulness of war – no matter the justification).
After a much longer drive than anticipated (European roads are…not the same), we finally made it to our B&B and, honestly, it took my breath away. It was called “Le Jardin Secret” … for good reason. Although off a main road, we had to drive through a tiny, hidden gate in the stone wall to enter the driveway – so tiny if we had blinked, we’d have missed it. So small that even our little mini barely squeezed through! Having successfully completed our first challenge, the reward was a dark tree-lined path overhung by branches at the end of which was the house itself. The building was a beautiful, vine-covered stone house with an English manor house look to it (sorry France!). It backed onto a lovely, expansive garden filled with an innumerable amount of plants, many of which were still flowering even though it was November!
I remember the walk through the property along twisted paths and through overgrown archways being wonderful. The entire grounds were enclosed by stone walls that truly looked like they could have been inspiration for the Secret Garden – awe-inspiring.
But it was when we arrived at our rooms that the magnitude of the difference between my usual hostel-based budget trips and the B&B style my Dad prefers was made clear. We were shown upstairs to our suite, which included a separate room for each of us and our own private bathroom! Now, remember, the most luxurious room Kristen and I stayed in on our three-week trip around the UK and Ireland was a “private room” in the attic where we still needed to share a bathroom so…This suite was sheer luxury as far as I was concerned.
The rooms themselves were gorgeous. Dad’s was multi-coloured and looked like it came out of an Easter special at the Willy Wonka chocolate factory, though it was referred to (inexplicably) as “La Plage”. Mine on the other hand was decorated in a red-and-white theme and had cursive Es embroidered on everything…fate? My window also faced east so, suffice it to say, even this non-morning-person was able to appreciate the sun’s daily greeting.
Our first night there, apart from meandering through the beautiful house and grounds, started off nicely thanks to a lovely chat with the B&B owner (side note: even in my journal from the trip I keep mistakenly referring to the accommodations as a hostel. This really was a new experience for me!). The owner was a sweet man named Bernard who immediately (and incorrectly) pegged me as someone who didn’t understand French because of my notorious aversion to speaking the language with Francophones, a fear my Francophone husband is still helping me get over almost four years into our relationship. Despite Bernard’s insistence on switching to English every time he so much as glanced in my direction during the conversation – a habit which prompted me to begrudgingly admire how fully bilingual he was – he was our inspiration for deciding to forgo an afternoon and evening off and instead head into Avranches proper for some exploration, and for this I must be forever grateful.
Thanks to his kind prompting, and encouraged no less by our desire to stay up as late as possible so as to escape the worst of the jet-lag, Dad and I were soon headed into town for some much-needed leg-stretching and adventure. I believe that even now, 4 years after we took this trip, I can safely say that Avranches is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, though it did remind me quite a bit of Durham in England. Perhaps this is why I loved it so much! Again…sorry France…
It is also where I experienced what I deemed “the most haunting moment of our trip” at that point, though I rightly predicted there would be many many more…
In the city center, there was a large war memorial – as there was in most of the towns we passed through – commemorating their war dead. Now, these we have here at home, though not nearly as many. What was different about this one, however, was the long list of civilian casualties listed on the one side: lives lost in the bombardment of Avranches. They didn’t have ages listed but this didn’t make the list any less heartbreaking. There were just so many names.
If that wasn’t enough to break me down (which it was), on the other side, the metal plaque listing the names of the men killed throughout the First World War was pockmarked and peeling, even bubbling in some places. A sign nearby explained that the earlier cenotaph was severely damaged in the bombings of ’44. This thought chilled me right to my core. That a monument to these men and boys who gave their lives to free their country would only stand to be almost ripped apart not a generation later by yet another devastating global conflict played out on French soil. It’s heart-wrenching.
So as not to leave this post on such a dour note, however, we did manage to check out the medieval part of the town as well as the beautiful old church while we were there – a welcome respite from all the contemplation of death and destruction.
After couple of hours of walking, and some freshly-baked bread for dinner topped off by a delectable beer, we were just about done.
According to my journal, I passed out at 6:30 PM that night. So much for making it a late night! Again, as this was four years ago now, I can’t fully recall how exhausted I must have been but I imagine I did indeed slip beneath the surface of sleep without so much as a ripple.
Stay tuned for one of the highlights of the whole trip: Mont St. Michel.
And, remember friends, despite its dark moments, life is beautiful.