Visiting Normandy: Home of cider, Mt St Michel, and the D-Day beaches
By Max Hartshorne
Normandy is known to many Americans only because of the Allied invasion on D-Day in June 1944, the most recognized piece of Normandy’s long history depicted in the Tom Hanks movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
In June 2009, I visited many of the places made famous during that historic time as well as landmarks made famous by much earlier battles, like Bayeaux. We began our trip in the city of Rouen and then motored out to the coast.
A Visit to the Palace of B&B in Fecamp
Both Normandy and Brittany fight over who actually owns Mont Saint-Michel, the number one tourist spot in France after Paris.
A river that separates the two provinces is being diverted, to avoid the erosion and build up of sand. So soon, the river will flow equally around it, so it will be even more difficult to decide whether it’s in Brittany or Normandy.
We went to a palace devoted to a certain spirit. That would be B&B, Benedictine liqueur, which is actually manufactured in a 1900s gothic/Romanesque palace in the oceanside town of Fecamp.
“Everything here is about the drink,” our guide Danielle told us as we glided from room to room, eyeing priceless works of art, a collection of ancient keys and locks from the 14th century, and other treasures that the inventor of this drink assembled in this grand palace to get people in the door.
Even the stained glass angels are pictured holding a bottle, gazing down from heaven with regal bearing. After magnificent rooms full of treasures, we made our way to the cellar where displays show the 27 spices and aromatics that are blended to make the strong elixir. And of course, it ended with a taste, but at 11 am, I had to do no more than sniff the potent stuff. My travel companion, photographer Paul Shoul, of course dove in to sip all three.
Haunting Face at Caen’s Memorial Museum
This haunting image fades to black every 10 seconds, signifying the horrific number of deaths in the Nazi-run concentration camps of World War II.
The museum takes you on a journey beginning in 1918, and lays out a timeline that began with World War I’s Treaty of Versailles, through the worldwide depression, and ending with the final days of the war in Europe in May 1945.
An attempt is made to show how one begat another and how people in such desperate straights as pre-war Germans would ever vote in such a monster as Hitler.
I came away with many thoughts after this startling collection of video, memorabilia, photographs, audio of speeches and even two young actors speaking in costume the roles of Jewish citizens.
Much is made here of the fact that France was so quick to sign a peace treaty and become one of the occupied territories of the Axis; we hear a speech by General De Gaulle pleading with his countrymen not to sign, and to resist. The French today, or at least the people, who created this impressive huge trove of historical relics seem to feel that the government of France did a great disservice by being so easy to conquer.
Another display showed the V1 rockets that Germany used to bomb England in the later stages of the war, the first use of missiles to kill people.
A map provided chilling details about the vast galaxy of extermination and detention camps all over Poland and Germany and showed how officers and political prisoners were sent to different camps than Jews, gypsies and other people that Hitler wanted to extinguish from the world. Letters written by GIs gave a glimpse of what they went through, and a chart at the very beginning showed that Germany and Russia lost the most lives in the long, terrible war in Europe.
A visit to the D-Day beaches and the many memorials there brought the museum’s vast collection into a sharper focus. Trees at the US-maintained American cemetery are trimmed like giant hedges, and row upon row of crosses intermingled with stars of David each showing the name, rank and state where the dead serviceman came from. Many just say, “Here rests a comrade in arms known but to God.”
‘A Good Drink’ and the Norman Hole
Have you ever heard of the Norman Hole? It has to do with the cherished apple digestif Calvados, which has been made in towns here in Normandy for centuries. Our guide Jean-Paul Herbert educated us about this tradition while we ate fish at a beachside restaurant in Le Havre.
The Norman Hole is what you have between meals, a shot of the fiery apple brandy in between courses to cleanse your palette.
He said that some women now prefer to have a little bowl of Calvados sorbet or even a few drops on a sugar cube. But the burly fishermen and farmers swear by the shot. We sipped our Calvados after the meal, not in between.
Herbert also talked of having ‘a good drink.’ We paused at that, and he explained that he meant a drink with friends, a collegial sort of belt, a social time. That’s a good drink.
We walked for what felt like miles across the shore and docklands of this bustling port city and watched two oil tankers and then two container ships make their way to the huge cranes of the port.
While Marseille claims the title of shipping the most freight, Le Havre has big plans to expand, adding ten cranes and dredging their port to accommodate the biggest container ships, which dwarf today’s models.
The city also has plans to build a tram, like the one in Caen, to wean people off of having to bring cars into the city. We saw a model of this big plan when we went to the Hotel de Ville (city hall) to view the city from the 17th floor.
Le Havre’s harbor area was nearly completely flattened by allied bombers, and the rebuilding was led the great architect Auguste Perret. His work was so lauded by people around the world that the redevelopment area has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site, rare for an urban area, but a designation that made everyone here very proud.
Coming Back to Gritty, Salty Granville
We arrived in Granville, on a spit of land jutting out just above Mont Saint-Michel on France’s coast.
I came here when I was 16, traveling Europe in a group trip with other kids, and I stood on a corner and recognized a gauzy, hazy memory… a movie theater once stood in a building that is now a casino overlooking the vast low tide that stretched out for a thousand yards. I told my guides and they laughed.
“You’re right, it was a theater,” they said, and I marveled at how long ago it was that I came here and retained memories of this gritty old seafarer’s town of about 15,000.
Our accommodations here are first rate — a modern Ibis hotel beside a bustling marina, surrounded by a wall showing the remarkable tides, which rise and fall about 20 feet.
“It’s dangerous because people can get caught off guard,” said our guides, “everyone plans their beach trips depending on the tides, and so do the boaters.” The yachts can’t get out during low tide, and the soccer player’s field and the wide-open expanse where people gallop horses is gone as well.
Granville is a seafarer’s town with a fleet of boats and the local specialties are bulot, snails, scallops, dorade, and skate. It was settled in the 1400s by English who wanted to use the city to plan an attack on the fortified Mont Saint-Michel, which was still held by the French. They didn’t succeed.
Way off in the distance, dark patches on the beach were mussel farms. A local specialty is oysters with camembert, which doesn’t sound very appealing.
Making Bells in Normandy
The town of Villedieu-les-Poeles has been famous as metalworking mecca for 900 years. It began because in this part of town, the land was not owned by the king, and thus not subject to taxes. So artisans like bellmakers and copper forges thrived.
The Fonderie de Cloches Cornille Havard is where teenagers begin apprenticeships and end up as seasoned bellmakers. Our timing was perfect–we arrived just before they would be doing their weekly casting.
Here we watched as molten bronze and tin is poured to form bells. Behind us a throng of French tourists moaned as Shoul and I got in their way, closer to the hot action, owing to our status as visiting American journalists.
We asked our guide Geraldine Lorin how the bell business is faring these days. “There are only three bell makers left in France,” she said, “and 30 across Europe. So that keeps us very busy.” What is the largest bell you’ve ever made?
“We are working on a bell for the church at Mulhouse, it will be six tons,” she said. We looked down at the 10-foot wide bell, encased in a mold of goat hair, horse manure, and mud. They would create another layer above this and then it would be used to hold the molten bronze, copper and tin alloy. “We don’t make the clangers,” Geraldine said, “Those are stainless steel and are made in a different factory.”
A French Market: Where Bizarre Shellfish Can be Found
We learned when we first arrived in Granville that this coast is famous for shellfish and that the lively city where we were staying was the de facto capital of the area since it is the largest town on the coast.
We got a chance to see the spoils that are brought up from the Atlantic in the downtown market, that starts in the main square and winds its way up and around nearby streets.
I found out what the bulot looks like — they’re giant snails. We also saw white squidlike creatures about five inches around and eight inches long, with eyes the size of nickels, cuttlefish, I think.
The people all over the market were friendly and eager to share samples of the delicious local andouille sausage and then I tried a cheese from a farmer that was made from both cow and goat milk.
The most popular stall was the one selling long sausages cooked over a charcoal grill. They pile on french fries wrapped right in with the french bread with the sausage, and slather it with mustard. I held off on the fries as I watched Shoul devour his. Enough calories to kill a horse, was how he described it.
Later we got in the car and drove through fields and past tall hedgerows to Barneville-Carteret, a sleepy beach town with not a lot going on, but the ocean front and center. Our hotel afforded us elegant views of the sea We watched the tide come up a thousand yards to just in front of us.
Go To France!
France offers so many different regions, each unique in their culinary traditions and history. Some of our French hosts told us that many French choose to head to the South, or to the Southwest for their vacations, so most of the visitor here in Normandy are from the UK or Europe. For any American considering a trip to France, I’d suggest Normandy is a great place to begin.
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