An Adventurous Long Weekend in Normandy
Recently, in search of what would be good to do for a stimulating long weekend, I made a reconnaissance of activities in our neighbour, France. General Eisenhower-like I was drawn towards the Pas de Calais, the habitual trip to Paris through Calais, but then, adventurously, I followed him onto the beaches of Northwest Normandy, with a much warmer welcome than was initially experienced by his men.
Flying with economical Flybe to Southampton, I was amused by their gate notification advising me to ‘Wait, Relax.’ I’ve never been advised to relax by an airline except in their ‘gift’ of a G and T, once onboard. Presumably the free advice to Relax was in lieu of the free G and T, for which Flybe wisely charges. Nonetheless, it was good advice, I intended to take.
But not for long. My fight with a virtually incomprehensible ticket machine on an unmanned Southampton Airport railway halt, left me frustrated and fearful of incurring a penalty if aboard without a ticket for Poole, my point of embarkation.
Nevertheless, on time, Southwest Rail carried me apace towards Poole in a comfortable, clean, modern carriage even if it was disconcerting to have an announcement repeated 8 times over 40 minutes for the guard to contact the driver. If the ‘guard’ was this plump, friendly, middle aged ticket collector then I hoped not to have need of being guarded which on other trips had, occasionally, seemed necessary as hooligans boarded and taunted passengers. I thought they were called ‘Train Managers’ now, anyway, to disclaim any appearance for the need for protection? Given that this line from London to Weymouth and beyond could be a workstation for business travellers, it is disappointing that the mobile signal is only intermittent and Southwest Rail have not invested in onboard Wi-Fi. But the views skirting the New Forest were splendid and blessed twice with glimpses of graceful Roe deer flitting behind the trees.
My overnight stay in The Arndale Court Hotel (3 star), www.arndalecourthotel.net,on Wimborne Road was unremarked except to say that the dining room served fare way superior to the hotel’s modest 3 star status.
The sophisticated service of Brittany Ferries out Poole certainly surpassed a tank landing craft that had carried me and my canoe on my first Channel crossing as a Sea Scout of 15. The exemplary cleanliness and modernity of fittings are a pleasure in which to relax. Although self-service, the catering, is excellent; the bilingual service exemplary. My generous serving of perfect langoustine could not have been excelled in a Michelin starred restaurant, ashore.
The Barfleurs’ size makes for a very comfortable crossing in a calm sea but it was intriguing to observe her Master’s manifest seamanship as he steered her bulk through the narrow channel and yacht moorings that entangle her track through Poole Harbour out from Poole Dock. Out to starboard lies Brownsea Island. There in a campsite supervised by Baden Powell himself, began Boy Scouting, to whom I owe so much.
Here above decks, cleverly, the twin exhaust stacks are situated on the stern carrying their, albeit, modest fumes and soot into our wake. Such low visible volumes of emissions are witness to well maintained diesels. On the large open top deck with non slip surfaces there is an open play area where it was a delight to see a happy, little daughter playing ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ with her parents. In fact gambolling about the ship were many happy children as they are so well catered for in colourful contained play/activity areas, the inevitable games machines, even physical motorbikes to sit astride and virtually roar around a track. There is also free Wi-Fi, great for the adolescent usually with their left hands welded to a smart phone’s entertainment and chat.
With young children it is probably better to avoid weekend travel as there is less press of people aboard, less pressure on resources. There is also less chance of encountering that bane of public transport that blighted my return voyage, day trip groups of loud, vulgar, inebriated, yobs who act as if manliness is next to drunkenness. Why they are allowed to board a ferry when they could not board a plane, I fail to understand. Fortunately I had the refuge of a private cabin in which to luxuriate, with shower, loo and choice of 4 bunk beds upon which to catch a nap or even emails. Although Wi-Fi doesn’t reach the cabins there is mobile phone service switching to roaming across the Channel. Vodafone, my provider, lets me use my phone and data plan for a reasonable extra £3 a day.
And then, there she is, out of the horizon emerges the massive fortifications of the Port of Cherbourg’s artificial breakwaters, constructed at the behest of Napoleon. Through this gateway he allegedly aspired to ‘ …recreate the wonders of Egypt.’ Sadly the only evidence of that grand intent is his grand equestrian statue. A glory of a different kind is commemorated in a modest memorial to the heroes of the Maquis who so often died in such appalling suffering, giving their life for the liberty of France. Happily, I was only passing through for like so many port towns, Cherbourg, behind her modern marinas and the economic vitality of her dock installations, container mountains and industry, lie her historically narrow streets, today rundown, neglected and litter bestrewn.
But within a 15 minute drive, joining the D45 Route de la Hague towards Goury, I was out into truly La Belle France and her verdant littoral landscape of the Cap de La Hague Peninsular. This coastline so often fearsomely jagged from the sea, is gentle and green inland when viewed from its cliff top pathways. The spiky Baie de la Blette de Rompue is so rich with langoustine, crab and lobster prepare to be satiated in the restaurant of your choice. Children can adventure, net in hand through multiple rock pools, whilst Dad keeps a wary lookout for a rising tide.
Ashore her highways and byways are crowned with a similar abundance, hedgerow bouquets of every kind of wild flower from vibrant columns of the statuesque, foxglove to the exquisite heart shaped leaves of the lovely, celadine.
In the welcoming sunshine of late afternoon, I just had to walk, so, serenaded by a joyous skylark, I took an undulating shoreline stroll along the Bay towards point of the Cap de la Hague beyond which lies the Nez de Joburg and her 128 metres high cliffs. At times, this walk became an exhilarating scramble along the cliff’s edge, one walker narrow, so in parts small children would enjoy to be safely piggy backed. Above me, promoted by yet more elevation, paragliders soared in the thermals, balletically playing chicken each with each.
Those thermals brushed my face as a refreshing light warm breeze from off the sea. However, the artist Millet, who was born hereabouts in Greville-Hague, in his storm lashed figures of mother and child of ‘The Storm’, dramatically illustrates the other side of weather here. Fierce wind and rain can turn this rural idyll into inhospitable bleakness, so choose your month and weather windows wisely. Go to www.lahague-tourisme.co.uk for a graphical presentation of the area’s delights, in English.
In the evening sun it was a pleasure to drive towards Hameau Mesnil and the Hotel La Roche du Marais (2 star), www.larochedumarais.fr, situated 300 metres across fields from the Anse or Cove of Saint-Martin. The hotels austere façade is cleverly offset by its flower bordered patio’s furniture having each of its table’s 4 chairs painted in a contrasting bright pastel colour. In this colourful setting I enjoyed a brief beer, smilingly served by Dorothy Alexandree, the owner, before venturing out for dinner as there is no restaurant here. At 4 Euros for a small 33cl beer, a 5 star price in a 2 star Hotel, reminded me that hotels can be expensive as was my room at 96 Euros. But then it was the best room with views of the sea, no expense seemingly spared in the modern bedroom and ensuite bathroom fittings, including on demand electric radiators, wherein free Wi-Fi supplemented the very faint mobile signal.
Accommodation rated at two star was a little misleading and seems to reflect the lack of a restaurant or bar and perhaps no TV in the rooms! Maybe also because of nil staffing at night for one was issued with, some would say trusted with, a code for the entrance door lock giving out as it did onto the ground floor and its shops open displays of knick knacks and local produce. Then breakfast was 2 star in what we like to refer to as a continental breakfast but up North as jam and bread, for the fruit of the confiture, the delightful croissant were unburdened by the presence of protein, cheese or ham. Not that that morning it was needed following the gourmet assault upon my senses of the night before in restaurant ‘Le Racine.’
Tony and Maude Husnot run their restaurant www.restaurant-leracine.com in a very welcoming style of warm encounters, treating their clientele as familiar friends, cavorting around the tables with their large portable ‘blackboard’ menus. Tony is also the chef so who knows how he manages his exuberance whilst preparing and serving up such appetising fare. He prides himself in having his own smokery so smoked seafood, fish and fowl figure largely but not exclusively on his tables. I began relishing smoked duck, followed by a steak of veal in a complex mushroom sauce; the syllables of ‘noisette de veau’ do so much more justice to its delightful savour. I’ll not confess which fresh local vegetables I skirted to leave room for the chocolate desert that ambushed my palate – it had to because I don’t do deserts, normally! All in all a wonderful repast toasted by a wine glass that somehow wouldn’t empty.
On the morrow my adventure took on a deeply sombre tone in a guided tour through the commemoration of the carnage of D-Day, The Utah Beach Museum, www.utah-beach.com.
Originally opened inside the actual German bunker that threatened Madeleine beach on the 6 of June 1944, the museum has recently been extended by a gift of $2M from the Dewhurst brothers in memory of their father who had flown a successful bombing mission on D-Day only to give his life days later. The pride of their donation is that the French government has released from Paris one of only 3 surviving examples of the B 26 medium bomber of the type Lt Colonel Dewhurst flew that day. Chattering under its massive presence, its wings bristling with armaments, excited children were naturally impressed by its immediacy, its potency but they were unlikely to be told that early design faults earned it the name the Widow Maker, that there was insufficient room to actually wear your parachute and that unless the bomb doors were open it was virtually impossible to escape when shot up and falling.
The exhibitions of the German and US weaponry and original artefacts of that beachhead invasion and resistance are comprehensive, from bullets to biscuits to bandages. The representations of the defensive installations inside that original bunker are coldly realistic and the archive Pathe News-type film footage of the amphibious assault is chillingly graphic.
Our guide was one Christian Lefauvre, a local historian and retired airman whose family from hereabouts were witnesses and victims under the hell of bombs and shells. He only works during the month of June. Personally he does so tohonourthe veterans and their relatives who still travel to pay their respects to the fallen. His detailed knowledge of those days, on both sides of the battle, and the campaign that followed is encyclopedic. He speaks in a manner that expresses an empathetic understanding of the sacrifices of those times. His gratitude for the liberation they bought was couched also in terms that said a grateful freed man also has freedom of expression. I was privileged to be there in June with him.
Not long before his own death on the 1918 front, the soldier poet Wilfred Owen wrote: ‘My subject is War, and the Pity of War….’ For those who have been there, that poem is redolent of meaning. The challenge for the museum going forward, as we lose the veterans and their immediate relatives who suffered their loss personally, is to address younger audiences especially children. Here, if anywhere we could counteract the propaganda of the Virtual Game that war is about baddies versus goodies who win, violence solves everything, dead men don’t bleed, mothers and widows don’t grieve? Perhaps a start would be a section illustrating the actual life of a local child under that occupation and bombardment, maybe taking inspiration from Serraillier’s ‘The Silver Sword.’
Unfortunately only the American and French flags are flying above the museum approaches, not also the European flag. To do so would be to commemorate what their blood bought that day with the Pity of their War, the political achievement of burying our frontiers not our peoples. Thanks to them, Europe is reconciled, peaceful and secure.
Elements of another invasion, a ‘cultural’ one that followed those tank tracks are expressed in the commercialism of the gift shop. You don’t end such a moving experience in a gift shop or inappropriately emblazon ‘shopping bags’. This isn’t Harrods. Put it across the road in the brash Brasserie Roosevelt, www.le-roosevelt.com blatantly Americanised, patently exploitative, or brazenly patriotic, if you like that kind of thing…
Fifty minutes East, Sword Beach, scene of the epic engineering feat of a Mulberry Harbour has no such beach memorial.
The Mulberry’s huge caissons of 600,000 tons of concrete were prefabricated and towed across the Channel to create a breakwater protecting a docking operation the size of Dover to deliver the massive logistical support essential to supply the Normandy campaign.www.musee-arromanches.
Nicknamed Port Winston, he actually visited them. It brilliantly defeated the massive German fortification of the Channel ports and effectively breached Rommel’s Atlantic Wall. But before it could be planted, a successful Beach Head had to be established. Eisenhower’s deception in assaulting Normandy gave an element of surprise that helped get 28,845 mainly British and Canadian men ashore on day one, with British losses of 683 men. However, once ashore they had to endure D-Day’s only significant counter attack that took place that evening led by the tanks of the 21 Panzer Division. Such was the resistance along this front that it was not until August 25 that Paris was taken but it must never be forgotten that this invasion could never have been possible but for the bravery, ferocity and unimaginable suffering of Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front.
And so today, Sword Beach’s commemoration lies out in the bay, lapped by water and crumbling into eventual decay, rather English in its understatement. But the caissons can be explored and explore them I did, by canoe, courtesy of the Centre de Loisirs Nautique, www.charavoile-asnelles.net. This is a wonderful website, albeit, without an English translation, setting out a range of nautical pursuits, centre to which is sand yacht racing on the beach – unsurprising since the owner, FrancoisGarnavaultis the World Champion of that sport.
His centre itself, but yards from the beach, is a little rundown and its canoes, albeit an unsinkable type, are somewhat battered. Perhaps Normandy tourism can redeem their neglect of Sword and at least have his website translated. Francois’ warmth and welcome was unstinted and soon we were afloat having signed an attestation (in French therefore invalid) that we could swim. Antony who accompanied us in a fleeter canoe was vigorous, encouraging and friendly. However as he gave no basics on canoe handling and safety it is probably best to get your kids some inland canoe experience before venturing out on to the sea. If water sport is your thing, then take you own life jacket because these, like many designs, have no crotch strap to stop the vest rising up and potentially choking you, should you be submerged.
The caissons themselves are huge and one, capable of entrance, revealed in its vast hollow interior the magnitude of the construction task and the enormity of their placement’s achievement. Paddles at rest, floating, way out, scoping Sword beach from the sea, it was moving, in that privileged tranquillity, to visualise the first wave of over burdened infantry stumbling though the heavy surf under fire, to their deaths, followed unfaltering by another wave and another and another.
That night Hotel Novotel, Bayeux (4 star), www.novotel.com, was blandly luxurious. Crisp linen is a delight and the breakfast fare abundant. I wish I could have done justice to it but once again dinner had been a temptation too far. As with Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything but temptation and sitting me down to dinner in what is as much a small wine merchant as a restaurant, Le Volet qui Penche is irresistible. email@example.com.
Pierre-Henri, the owner was personally attentive at all the tables and indulged me with a sea food starter and then a steak dish, chosen of course so I could savor both his delightful white and a red wine. What was totally unfair was that he served me with a complimentary chocolate desert which, courtesy of course, demanded I indulge. I’m sure waist band and liver were groaning at the ‘long’ in my ‘long weekend.’
The most professionally polished event of this break was at the spectacular Viaduct de la Souleuvre where A J Hackett’s organization has conducted Bungy jumping here and around the world for over 20 years. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reassuringly, the choreographed equipment fittings are carried out with the military precision of an RAF Jump Master by a team of young, fit men who equally reassure and encourage the doubter. The manager, Christian Ferrier, himself a veteran of jumps in 25 countries, is to be seen everywhere, ear to his radio ready to encourage, guide and decide. Out on the viewing platform, the sheer apprehension then exhilaration in the faces of the jumpers is vibrantly tangible, resonating out into the faces of mesmerized friends and anxious relatives. Your jumps are captured on video to be presented on a USB to take home and be relived!
The setting astride this viaduct above this wooded ravine is spectacular, worth a visit alone. The green sward of the valley bottom is threaded by a stream and on the far bank is a barbeque and bar, a great place to sit out in the sun with a beer, a meal and a spectacular view of the descents. There are multiple activities but behind the restaurant is the new Luge, an exhilarating ride up amongst the hillside of trees then a screaming descent down and around multiple hairpin bends in an independent, solo or double car. Protective dads you get multiple rides with mum, then kids as your passenger! Though most mums will insist on a second ride alone, such is the fun of almost being in control as you hurtle around the trees. Viaduct de la Souleuvre is an experience not to be missed.
‘Follow That’ was the challenge at Le Haras des Bruyerese, www.harasdesbruyeres.fr,a stables not a stud as in its title. Set in amongst verdant fields, on the age of an extensive wood, fences suggested show jump training but we were mounted for a trek through pleasant, albeit muddy woodland trails past a glimpse of a lake. Intriguingly, an ancient Abbey ruins lay through the trees and are visited by some rides. As with canoeing, once again, a competence seems to be presumed by making the choice of the activity, as no advice or guidance on being in safely control of your mount was heard. This was unfortunate because one rider seemed to assume that a kind heart lets the horse have free rein so hers was constantly dropping its head to munch at appetizing grass. This led to not only syncopated progress but of course to other horses following suit. The rider in front of me knew horses but without gloves she cut her hands trying to control her mount. I had a fight constantly to hold my horse’s head up which somewhat detracted from enjoying the scenery and the experience.
Denis Soursas, the ebullient owner is proud to offer unwanted local horses, sanctuary, but perhaps that is not the best source of horses pre-trained to be ridden safely by the novice. I also found most of the tack to be ageing and its leather brittle, wanting in cleaning and then perhaps neatsfoot oil. Nonetheless the welcome could not be more sincere nor the eagerness to share the local history especially of the Abbey going all the way back to William. The same William who decided to visit our islands in 1066 when its King, Harold, was carelessly away, busy putting down an uprising in the North East many days horse ride away from Hastings. Not Denis’ version of course; his literally embroidered version is not that far away in Bayeux, where I had spent the last night.
Dinner that night was once again a gourmet’s delight. This time it was in the Restaurant ‘O Gayot’, www.ogayot.fr, where Robert, our maitre d’ managed a sophistication of service and fare within a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Of course I may have been influenced by a wonderful cocktail which has a rude name but if you switch the cranberry in a Cosmopolitan with peach you get the idea. Then, as this was my last night in France, I just had to have the oysters served with a masterpiece dressing of finely chopped shallots, olive oil, salt and pepper in red wine vinegar – followed if it could be, by pepper steak, bleu.
And so to bed where if I had been saddle sore my destination would have filled the bill magnificently. I was staying overnight in the spanking new B’O Cottages, www.bo-cottage.com. Now, no sniggers at a brand mishap as silly as was calling a Spanish car, ‘Nova’, ‘No Go’, because these luxurious self-catering apartments are the latest adjunct to the magnificent Spa, www.bo-spathermal.com.
My apartment was beautifully fitted with ensuite bathroom, carpet-thick bath robes, a fully fitted kitchenette, including a fridge, crockery and cookery wherewithal, even a balcony as a dining room, TV and Wi-Fi. This could be home from home provided your gym membership had equipped you with the strength needed to pull the couch out into a very comfortable bed. Of course mother might not want to cook so there is dining room for breakfast and a healthy looking stir fry BBQ on the patio for lunch.
There are bigger apartments but in mine there was a communicating door to its double should you want to bring the children, and Dad to babysit, next door. Not that all men are averse to the attentions of a masseuse and a bubble bath! He gets help from acolourfulchildren’s room, a basement pool to teach them to swim in and high quality bikes of all sizes to take them for a spin, even a cradle on wheels to tow baby.
Now, philosophically I am a feminist when I see women’s emotional vulnerability exploited so blatantly as here, claiming that the Spa thermal waters had medicinal properties and that beauty can be bought out of ever more ‘natural’ and hence naturally more expensive, jars of cream, to rebirth her as Cleopatra. However, I also believe that women on the whole get a raw deal in this life and if she can afford a stay here that relaxes her and makes her feel really good about herself, for her self, not as someone’s arm candy, then all credit towhoeverdreamed up this palace to the sensuous arts of self indulgence.
Of course calling a tower block of apartments, a ‘cottage’ is another clue to their marketing cluelessness, let’s hope not to more marketing cynicism. However, there is a major redeeming feature to this B and this O. It abbreviates, Bagnoles de l’Orne, the historic, amazingly beautiful Spa town whose wooded shoulder this Spa graces. The town is almost enclosed by delightfully wooded hills and it sits around a lake of swans whom I fed as I breakfasted. Every street border that can be, is richly garlanded with flowers and the buildings sit comfortably alongside each other like friendlyneighbourswho have grown up together in some organically harmonious way.If you go nowhere else in Normandy, visit here, for as in the eloquence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bagnoles –de-l’Orne
“……Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying Whát I do is me..”
So, pack your pocket dictionary, your outdoor kit, your gourmet appetite and visit Normandy with confidence. Expect to be delighted.
Normandy Tourism Sites in English
la Hague Cap Cotentin – www.lahague-tourisme.co.uk
Visitors can contact the Tourist Office throughout the year for guided tours in English for a cost of €5.50 per person.
Manche Tourism – www.manche-tourism.com/en
Calvados Tourism – calvados-tourisme.co.uk/en
Orne Tourism – www.normandy-tourism.co.uk
Local Contacts in France
Hôtel La Roche du Marais
50440 OMONVILLE LA PETITE
Tel: +33 2 33 0 87 87
Standard garden view room: €66 (€76 with television) Standard sea view room: €76
Superior room with sea or garden view: €96 Breakfast supplement: €10
Restaurant le Racine
Rue du Haut
Tel. +33 2 33 52 64 61
Run by Tony and his wife Maud. He sources local produce for his menu and does a lot of his own fish smoking on site.
Musée du Débarquement – Utah Beach
50480 Sainte Marie du Mont
+33 2 33 71 53
Museum Director Ingrid Anquetil.
Entry prices Adult: €7.50 Children (7-15yrs): €3 Guided tours of the museum and beach are available and cost €11.50 for adults and €7 for children.
VIP Tours These special ‘behind the scenes’ tours of the museum allow visitors to explore areas of the museum that would not normally be open to the public (inside the bomber etc.) and cost €50 per person in groups of 8 persons max.
+33 2 33 71 53 47
Centre de Loisirs Nautiques
Câle de l’Essex
Tel. +33 2 31 22 71 33
The owner François. Canoeist, Antony. Per hour single kayak is €10, two-man kayak is €15.
Hotel Novotel Bayeux (4 star)
117 rue Saint-Partrice
Rond-Point de Vaucelles
Tel. +33 2 31 92 16 11
Rates are available on the website – prices vary according to arrival date
Restaurant-wine bar Le Volet qui Penche
3, l’Impasse de l’Islet
+33 2 31 21 98 54
The owner is Pierre-Henri Lemessier. This is more of a wine bar. Henri changes the menu daily according to the fresh produce he is able to source from the local markets.
Le Haras des Bruyères
61550 St Evroult de Notre Dame
Owner, Denis Soursas Guide Caroline
Horse by the hour: €20, Pony by the hour: €14. A day-long accompanied outing, including a picnic lunch in the forest, €60 per person.
rue du Professeur Louvel
BP 33, Bagnoles-de-l’Orne
Restaurant O Gayot
2, avenue de la Ferté Macé
Tel. +33 2 33 38 44 01
Maitre d’ Robert
(All www. links as at 8 July 2013)