With a sigh that seemed to come up from the soles of the feet, he rose…”
P.G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
I’ve made the executive decision to divide my rather long and emotional tale of my trip to the beaches of Normandy into several different posts. I do this not only in consideration of your time, dear reader, but also your mental health – especially as we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. I have a feeling this series will run to 3 or 4 posts and I hope you will join me for all of them.
Ridley’s heart sank within him. Physicians say that this cannot happen, but editors know a sensation which may not be described in any other phrase.”
Robertson Davies, Leaven of Malice
Re-reading the last travelogue I published, so long ago now it defies reason, I was struck by the intense emotions which had been inspired by my research into the bombardment of Caen during World War Two. Before even embarking on the tale of my 2015 trip to France, I had known that many of my recollections would result in revisiting the hard feelings which accompanied almost all of our war-related outings but I confess I have been surprised by how much these musings have affected my psyche. So much so that often weeks or months pass before I feel that I can once again return to those days filled with, yes, adventure but also intense explorations of the human suffering that was the constant soundtrack to the World Wars.
Even now, all these weeks since I posted my last travelogue, I find I have to give myself a few moments to digest the thoughts and feelings laid out so honestly in my travel diary before I can even begin to craft another post.
And so, without further ado, we return to Caen, France to finish up the tale of our visit to that glorious if pained city in November of 2015.
“Overall, the library held a hushed exultation, as though the cherished volumes were all singing soundlessly within their covers.” – Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
I feel the need to start off this post with an admission that despite the quote chosen above, I am not writing about a library, per say. That is not to say the location described never held any tomes of the written word within – in fact I can safely say that it once contained mountains and mountains of books – but rather this quote seemed to help me recall the feeling of walking around its hallowed grounds in a way I found both evocative and inspiring.
For, this was the day I finally got to walk up the steep paths of the legendary Mont Saint-Michel. And let me tell you, it truly did not disappoint.
We started the morning off bright and early, having gone to bed at an overly decent hour, with a lovely breakfast consisting of fresh baguettes, homemade white cheese, butter, jams, raisin buns, cake and – of course – coffee. I must say, for the entirety of our sojourn in France, I was both confused and enamoured by their style of breakfast. See, in North America at least, the preference tends to be towards savoury-style breakfasts (definitely the kind of breakfast my husband prefers). I know what you’re thinking, “But, Erin, Canada is famous for it’s maple syrup-drowned pancakes”. Well, yes, you’re totally right. But in most peoples’ experience, I would wager, this was a treat for a Saturday or Sunday morning complete with cartoons and pajama time that stretched luxuriously until noon or later. On most mornings, some eggs and toast will suffice (and bacon! If you have the time).
However, I digress.
The breakfast, however sweet for my taste, was scrumptious. A treat I was able to enjoy largely in silence as Dad did most of the talking every time Bernard popped his head in while I proceeded to stuff my face. You’d be surprised at how much food I could consume back then – certainly not the case anymore! I have slowed down considerably in my, er, older age.
Right after breakfast, we headed out on our short journey to Mont Saint-Michel and, honestly, I was shaking with anticipation (or from the abundance of strong coffee — we’ll never know, will we?). This place had been on my bucket list forever so the chance to finally see it in person was just unreal.
Due to my sheer excitement, when we were still a fair distance away I made Dad stop on the side of some random road beside a field because there it was…already!
In the far distance, across goodness knows how many kilometers of flat ground, Mont Saint-Michel rose up our of the mists like a mirage. I can think of nothing I have seen before or since which can compare with this view. It was like reality’s best imitation of the most elaborate fairytale location imaginable.
I did, finally, get back into the car and allow Dad to drive us there but it was hard not to just stand there forever and stare. It was only the promise of seeing it up-close-and-personal that made me move.
After parking the car, we opted for the 40 minute walk to the Mont as opposed to the 5 minute shuttle service – and I’m damn glad we did. This way, we got to savour 40 minutes of that view. Totally worth the exertion (I’m not sure pregnant me would be in agreement but, she was not present at the time). I think I took a million photos – if I could only find them all!
The walled city/abbey crossbreed was no less spectacular once we entered it. A winding, narrow cobblestone street made its way languorously to the pinnacle where the abbey sat. It was a wonderful, picturesque climb.
We also stumbled, rather unexpectedly, on a plaque proclaiming that it was on that very spot in the 16th century where Jacques Cartier was given his orders to explore Canada. How cool is that? A little piece of Canadian history in my new favourite place in all the world (do I give that title out a lot? I feel as if I do…)
We explored a little chapel which seemed to appear out of nowhere, and yet another memorial to the local war dead, perhaps all the more stark for being surrounded by so much peaceful beauty. Finally, having appeased our curiosity by exploring as much of the lower levels as possible, we made our way up to the Abbey itself.
The tour of the Abbey was very well laid out, though much of it was blocked off at the time unfortunately (including the stairs to the bell tower – so much for my tradition of climbing the tallest tower available!). Despite these closures, however, it was no less awe-inspiring. So many cavernous rooms containing long rows of pillars reminiscent of Moria (though it was, in fact, Peter Jackson’s inspiration for Minas Tirith instead), and a breathtaking view of the coast of Normandy. With the fog still hanging heavily in the air throughout the countryside, the view was unforgettable.
The cloister also featured one wall which had a huge floor-to-ceiling “window” of modern glass being the only thing stopping us from tumbling to the ground below. If that had simply been precariously-thin stained-glass once-upon-a-time, as Dad suggested, it can’t have been very safe. I’m curious as to how many accidents were narrowly avoided… Not a place to walk around with your head in the clouds…or your nose in a book!
We also came across the top of a chute we had jokingly called the “toboggan run” looking up at it from below. It was, in reality, far too steep for even the bravest of Canadians to attempt a run. At any rate, as Dad and I stood there, we both experienced shaking ankles and calves as well as a pain in our legs. We chalked it up to our incredible fear of heights (we were both looking straight down) but I read over lunch that day the following story:
Random Historical Fact #17
Though intended to be a place of quiet religious contemplation, during the French Revolution and the numbered days of the Napoleonic Empire the Abbey was actually converted into a prison to house people deemed to be enemies of whatever regime they had managed to anger (remember – power changed hands swiftly during these trying years). At one point during the Abbey’s tenure as a daunting dungeon, one such political prisoner decided he would rather take his fate into his own hands and choose to leap to his death rather than face an unknown length of time rotting in an isolated cell. Though the exact location he lept from does not seem to be agreed upon publically (at least from the research I have done thus far), while Dad and I were there it was suggested that the top of this chute was where it happened. I can’t imagine being so desperate to avoid a situation that you decide to cease living instead but, then, this man wouldn’t be the first or the last to make this heart wrenching choice.
Though I may not have any proof that this is where Gautier leapt to his doom, I’ve spoken before about sensing pain or suffering in a location, even if no evidence persists. Believe what you will, but I know what we both felt standing there…and it still gives me shivers.
Our time at the Abbey did eventually come to a close as we enjoyed some fresh crepes and local cider (both specialties of the region) and a bit more rambling to walk off the food, as well as a Croque Monsieur for me because…France.
After a disappointing walk through a fake “Village Mont Saint-Michel”, which basically consisted of luxury hotels and huge restaurants to cater to the thousands of tourists who flock, unsurprisingly, to the Mont every year, we jumped in the car and headed on to our next stop – St. Malo.
As we drove through countless coastal villages, my heart was again broken by the sheer amount of memorials to lost soldiers on the side of the road. At one point, we went through two villages in the span of a minute or so, both of which had their own memorial dedicated to 40-odd combat dead…the villages today couldn’t have had more than a couple hundred inhabitants total; in either. How many men even came back? The mind (and the stomach) reels.
I was still trying to process these thoughts when we rolled into St. Malo and the finding of the Old City, thankfully, acted as a welcome distraction. We found parking underground at the port and headed a few paces through the gates of the medieval city.
The sight that greeted us was already familiar though no less striking. A curving network of cobblestone streets and surrounded by a grandiose stone wall complete with a network of defense towers.
Before the fun could begin, however, it appeared the heartbreak was not yet over.
We stumbled suddenly upon the city’s Jardin de Resistance which memorialized not only war-combat-dead but also the civilian casualties from the German siege of the city (so many) and the French Resistance fighters either executed en-place, or deported to Dachau or other concentration camps and killed there. Their ashes, or the ashes of far too many victims of Nazi cruelty in general, were eventually brought from the camps and spread on the ground around a horrible stature of an arm-less soldier crying out in agony. This time, I couldn’t stop the tears. Luckily, Dad knew me well enough to let me be. I’m not sure that I am terribly upset that I cannot find my photo of this statue but please do feel free to look it up if you want an idea of how horrifying it was.
After this incredibly somber note, Dad and did our best to enjoy an afternoon of rampart walks and a stroll along the coast, barefoot no less, to one of the adjoining islands which held the tomb of some famous writer that he knew though I was, embarrassingly, clueless.
While on the ramparts, we were overjoyed to find an hysterical statue of a flamboyantly famous Corsair as well as a statue of Jacques Cartier himself (right near the Maison du Quebec, appropriately).
After the glories of Mont St-Michel, one would think little could please Dad and I but I will say that St. Malo was a pleasant surprise. The day was then topped off by a fantastic dinner in some small town – the first place we could find as everything seems to shut there after 2pm not to re-open until closer to 9 in the evening. The owner of this place, however, made up for it by being the consummate host, serving up the best seafood pasta and Stella a physically and emotionally tired girl could ask for.
Finally, we rounded it all out with a view of the spectacularly lit-up Mont St. Michel after dark. I may be unable to find my photos of this (though I guarantee you would have no problem finding some with a quick Google search) but I’ll never forget the sight.
It may not have been a library, per say, but that view certainly held a hushed exaltation, as if the stones themselves were singing soundlessly within their mortared homes.
I told you the quote fit.
More in two-weeks! And, remember, Life is beautiful.
“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.