Normandy: slices of history mixed with places of beauty
Mention Normandy and Americans think of D-Day. With the invasion's 40th anniversary just past, the connection is even stronger these days - leaving the rest of the province's attractions overlooked.
They shouldn't be. Normandy offers a good taste of all the advantages of the French countryside: tranquil, placid settings, splendid historical monuments, and chic resorts. Mix in some fantastic cooking and all the ingredients for a wonderful vacation are present.
A good focus point for the visit is Bayeux. It is the only significant town near the D-Day beaches, and though the invasion sites do not justify a long visit, a quick one-day pilgrimage is recommended.
Most of the beaches themselves show no signs of the fighting. They have returned to their former vocations as backwater resort areas, offering nothing special to see. Each little town's D-Day museum, offering dull recountings of the battles which are better told in books, can be skipped as well.
But there are a few legitimate points of interest. The American cemetery near Omaha Beach, its rows of simple white crosses and Stars of David set by the sea, is a stirring site. Another six kilometers south along the coast is Pointe-du-Hoc, where the battered remains of German bunkers stand in testament to the courage of the 225 Rangers who braved withering fire to scale the 100 -foot cliff. Finally, a few kilometers inland at La Cambe is the simple and somber German cemetery, its dark granite stones marking a thoughtful and moving contrast to the pristine white gravestones of the American victors.
Bayeux itself, however, is perhaps more fascinating. The town was William the Conqueror's old Norman capital. Since then, nearby Caen has taken over the title of Normandy's major city, a fortuitous development for tourists since Bayeux has remained a quaint, pretty market town of some 12,000, unaffected by the ills of a modern industrial conglomeration.
Bayeux was also more fortunate than its nearby neighbor in the last war. While it took the Allied liberators six weeks to capture Caen, leaving the city devastated in the process, Bayeux was the first town in France to be freed, on June 7, 1944, one day after the invasion, and it suffered no damage in the process.
Start at the center with the Cathedral of Our Lady. It is a fine Norman Gothic edifice, completed more than 900 years ago in 1077. Built at the height of Normandy's power, it shows how rich William's kingdom was. Despite some unhappy additions such as a 19th-century bonnet on top of the central tower, the Gothic style is remarkably preserved, with graceful flying buttresses flanking the spires and the three-story chancel.
Leaving the cathedral, walk along the nearby canal. Bayeux is not Venice, or even Bruges, but this single small waterway through the town center is an exquisite site, the simple and symmetrical facades of the buildings lining the banks. Nearby, too, is the beautifully preserved 14th-century wood building housing the tourist office.
Down the street is preserved the most famous artistry in Bayeux, the Bayeux Tapestry. The 231-foot-long work is the most precise and living document to be preserved for us from the Middle Ages, giving graphic details of the clothes, ships, arms, and customs of the period.
It tells the story of King William's invasion and conquest of England, all in a fashion that is perhaps more dramatic than any monument to the more recent invaders who crossed the English channel in the other direction.
The action centers on the rivalry between Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, and William. In 58 gripping scenes, we see Harold's tragedy played out, his taking of the oath of fealty to William, his breaking of it, and , in the end, his downfall at the hands of the triumphant William near Hastings, England.
The tapestry's story, which is narrated in Latin captions, is made accessible by a new presentation. Until last year the work was housed in a drab, ill-lighted building, conditions that many art historians feared were letting it literally disintegrate.
But the town of Bayeux raised nearly $5 million to save its masterpiece. An entire 18th-century hotel particulier (city mansion) was cleared out and renovated so that visitors now can see a permanent exhibit explaining the tapestry's history and listen to a slide show in preparation for viewing the actual work. The tapestry itself is now displayed in an air-conditioned, darkened room. Gentle lights illuminate the colors and bring out the fabric's texture.
On leaving Bayeux, visitors may head either north or south with equal pleasure. In either direction, the countryside is lush, brightened this season with apple, pear, and cherry blossoms. Lilacs bloom around stone farmhouses, over ancient walls, and along narrow lanes. Cows, feasting on the floral carpet, are everywhere, evidence of Normandy's dairy tradition.
To the south is perhaps the most famous sight in the region, the monastery of Mont-St. Michel. The abbey structure is renowned for its awe-inspiring architecture and site, a precarious perch atop a small, rocky mountain just off the coast.
Mont-St. Michel is at the border of Normandy. Moving farther west leads one into Brittany, farther south into the Loire Valley. Both are beautiful regions, but there is still much more to see of Normandy.
Just north of Bayeux lies Caen. This is a clean, modern city, completely rebuilt from the wartime destruction. A few notable old abbeys and one Gothic church survived the war in good shape, but the city can be bypassed without too much harm. Clean, modern buildings can be found anywhere, so continue along the coast.
The Normandy beach resorts lie straight ahead. First there's Cabourg, Marcel Proust's summer abode. Then Houlgate, a more middle-class destination. World-famous Deauville is next - and it's the place to visit.
In the summer, Deauville sparkles with dazzling luxury. It is full of entertainment, racing, regattas, galas, tournaments. Head to the planches, the wooden promenade beside the beach, and watch the beautiful people stroll by. Take a dip in the sea or buy an ice cream.
In Normandy it's hard not to have a good time - even in the rain.