Friday, February 25, 2011

Road Trip: Part Three A: France

After we leave Belgium, we head into France. Out of the dark rises the Vimy Memorial. We see tons of stuff in Normandy and eat food. We (the boys) drive a lot. This post contains a brief video from the BBC. Caution: contains educational information.

By the time we hit the French-Belgian border, the fog had landed and the darkness had gotten darker. As it tends to do in the evening. Toodling along, we sped past towns and whipped by round-a-bouts. Following a combination of manual maps, iPhone navigation and road signs, the town of Vimy approached us (depending on one's frame of reference).

At some point, some one glimpsed a white bobble on top of a hill, off in the mist. The shapeless bobble slowly turned into two imposing white towers. The Vimy Memorial sits as a sentinel on a 250 acre ridge-top battle field. The darkness stopped us from exploring too far around; partly because the fading light was going to make pictures difficult, partly because the fading light made seeing the "do not walk" signs difficult to see. And trust me, with the vast number of buried World War 1 ordinance and tales of exploding sheep, vaguely wandering around was not an option. This was the location of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. 
Canadian National Vimy Memorial
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is massive.  In the 1920s, a design competition was held and won by a Toronto lad named Walter Seymour Allward. It took 11 years to build out of cast concrete and bonded limestone and was unveiled in 1936. The memorial was restored starting in 2005. The memorial is not dedicated to only those of Vimy, but to all soldiers that took part in coming-of-age of Canada on the world stage. Vimy is said (repeatedly by other Matt) to be moment in history that Canada became its own nation, and not just part of a realm of the Queen. I will let the pictures speak for the site.

Having been done with the site as far as we could, and leaving other parts of the park to explore for the next visit, we headed back down the hill to the Café d'Érable (Maple Cafe!). Eating our overpriced pre-dinner sandwiches (plus coffee and cola light) surrounded by artfully hammered brass shells. 

Now for driving. I had really wanted to stop in Honfleur, to show off a gorgeous French sea-side town. Instead, we blasted by on the highway, trying to get as close to the next destination as possible. We passed over the beautiful Le Havre bridge, and then got off the highway onto a smaller set of roads. Suddenly, there was a bright flash and a bunch of swearing. It was an unmarked speed camera. Oh well. 

On to Lisieux and a hotel. A hotel in which I kept having déjà vu moments. According to faulty memory, I have been in the hotel for a pre-booking critique and rejection during a bike trip with my father and sisters. We had been on a tour of the Brittany and Normandy region over two weeks. With this trip, I would be looking at many of the same sites, in a 3 day stretch. Certainly different ways to travel. However, after staying in that hotel for a night, I understand why it was rejected the first time. Dingy!

Breakfast the next day (Day 5) was excellent. In a neighbouring patisserie, there were croissants, pain au chocolate, pain au raisin, brioche for eating and cafe and cola light for drinking. I picked up some local jam (vanilla apple and blackcurrant). We cracked a few lame jokes about the lop-sided cathedral and packed ourselves into the car.

Calvados Distillation

The first stop of the day was at about 11 A.M. and alcoholic. Outside a small village, at a calvados distillery we had a tour and a tasting. Calvados is an apple based spirit. Products at this particular distillery include a fizzy cider, a creme liqueur and a wide age range of calvados. You can also trinket up with everything from napkins to key-rings. Tipsy (not really)  and loaded up with even more booze than before, our poor heavy car got moving.

Laplace Backside

Stop #2 was a pure accident. It may have been a bathroom-break, or perhaps just curiosity, but we stopped in another small village. By pure accident, we had stumbled upon the birthplace of Pierre-Simon Laplace: an all-around smart guy whose mathematical machinations torture students and excite nerds world wide. Laplace applied new mathematical techniques to everything: "celestial mechanics", surface tension, probability, mathematics, et cetera.  Now, he has an asteroid named after him, his name is engraved in the Eiffel tower, and there's a bronze replica of him in the town square of Beaumont-en-Auge. Beaumont-en-Auge had fantastic old buildings and stunning views as well. (My) Matt was the sole member to walk up to the church and reported a restoration of a falling down facade, and a public WC around the corner.

Seaside Villa
Stop the third occurred after a sojourn along coastal towns. The destination was Juno Beach, in Courseulles-sur-Mer. The Juno Beach Centre was set back from the dunes of the beach, and houses a museum. A series of interactive exhibitions tell the story of war from a Canadian perspective. There is information about life before the war, the efforts of civilians and soldiers, and the aftermath of international and regional relations. Juno Beach itself is sandy and beach like. There are a few tanks and concrete bunkers in the area, but the majority of the space is sand and sea. In an environment that is undergoing perpetual swift change, it is not the same as when the D-Day soldiers stormed landward. 

Juno Beach Bunker
Fourth stop was Bayeux. In Bayeux is 224 feet (63.4 metres) long embroidered cloth. It is akin to a multi-panel comic strip, telling the story of the French Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England by William the Bastard Conqueror. The story starts with the death of King Edward who sends Duke Harold to Normandy. Harry is supposed to tell William the Bastard that upon the death of Ned, Bill is to become King of England. However, Harry is a twit, gets lost and is captured by Guy in Normandy. Guy and Bill exchange prisoners, and Harry goes for a bit of a battle with Bill near Mont Saint Michel. After the battle, Bill knights Harry and they have a party. Harry goes back to England and a dying Ned, and becomes King against ned's wishes. Bill gets annoyed and decides that he is going to invade England for his rightful crown. Bill lands with his knights and horses, and the Normans and English proceed into battle. This is the historical Battle of Hastings. Here, Harry dies with an arrow in the eye. 

It is exceptionally detailed, and comes with latin inscriptions about the scene as well as appropriate decorations on the borders. The tapestry was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo (William's half-brother). It must date from soon after the 1066 invasion, which makes it over 900 years old. The type of embroidery used, as well as the dyes and even the text lead towards England being the place of manufacture. It is also thought that the tapestry is missing crucial ending scenes of William's coronation. One thing to remember about the tapestry is its origin. It depicts the views of the conquering Normans. As with many historical document, it does not tell the story of the losing side. 

Bayeux Cathedral
The tapestry's original home was the Bayeux Cathedral - completed in 1077 and commission by Odo. Since we were in Bayeux, we went to it. While the place itself is massive and gorgeous, it is hard to distance the disturbing practices of its creation. Built over Roman ruins, it is an ornate gothic building housing the usual complicated stained glass window, a crypt under the transept/nave crossing, an organ and outer reconstruction. The detail is magnificent, and must have taken thousands of man-hours to complete. And only a few moments to photograph.

Hotel Room
We headed out of Bayeux, and further westward. We arrived in Pontorson in time to be picky about hotels, and actually ended up in another Best Western. The Hotel de Montgomery was awesome! At least more awesome than the night before. It seemed like two houses shoved tighter, and the floor plan was ridiculous! Rooms were in no particular location, and no particular order. There were random steps on a floor, and cupboards and mirrors that imitated doors and corridors. Styles ranged from modern to grandma. Matt and I got the floral room; Vicki and Matt got the orange room. At some point during the night, I was bitten by a devilish little bug, leaving me with itchybites on my face and shoulders. No one believed me, but it happened there and I still have them (at the time of writing)!

Vicki, (my) Matt and myself went out for dinner. I had checked review for restaurants briefly, but there wasn't much choice regardless. The dish of the region is agneau pre-salé: lamb that has been feeding on the highly salted tidal grasslands at the foot of Mont Saint-Michel. When the lamb could be found amongst the fat, it was delicious. None of us actually ordered a proper meal, only the meat course, and so tummies were left rumbling. Food still had to be found for (other) Matt, as he was all tied up in the hotel room with an internet connection. He got shwarma sandwich. And probably a cola light. Oh, sandwiches!

Photo of the Moment:

3 Twits in a Barrel

Next: Continuation of France

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