Monday, October 19, 2009

Vive La France!

Bonjour! I hope everyone is doing well. I am having a fantastic week, which will turn into a fantastic two weeks when I leave for fall break on Friday. But more about that later, right now, I want to tell you about my fabulous weekend in Normandy, France - a study trip for my History of the Middle Ages class.

We left for the Continent on Thursday, and took an overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. We had cabins, so we were able to attempt to get some sleep. But, the rocking of the boat, plus the 4:30am wake up call (an alarm of opera music played over the loudspeakers) made that a bit difficult. Friday was a long day, starting with a two hour drive from Caen to Falaise, and we arrived at 7:30am, France time. On the way, we stopped at the Falaise Gap, a major site from World War II. Here, a group of Allied Polish soldiers had won the hill, but were constantly being bombarded by approaching German troops. They managed to stay there for three days until reinforcements could come and relieve them. There was a very nice monument in remembrance of their bravery. Here is a view from the hill they were stationed on.

After the memorial, we continued onto Falaise. Once there, we stopped at a delightful little cafe for breakfast. My rudimentary French got me a delicious cinnamon raison bun and hot chocolate, which was a great stat to an awesome day. We then went to Falaise Castle, which was the home of William the Conqueror before he became King of England. In 1066, William, then only Duke of Normandy, was invited over by his uncle, Edward the Confessor to be King of England upon Edward's death. However, Edward's brother in law, Harold, tried to seize the throne. William came over with his troops from Normandy, and at the Battle of Hastings killed Harold and was crowned King of England. Here is his castle:

The castle was used as a German fort in WWII, so on many of the towers, you have the medieval arrow windows which run vertically, and also the 1940's machine gun windows, which run horizontally.

The castle is right in the center of Falaise, and the little town was very quaint.
They are very proud of their history, and have a huge statue of William in the main square. His horse is standing only on two legs, which signifies that he died as a result of wounds from battle. His son, Henry I (husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Richard the Lionheart and John I, of Magna Carta fame), took control on his death.
Here is a view of Falaise from the top of the castle. It was absolutely gorgeous!

After Falaise, we made our way to Bayeux, which is a small town in Normandy. We stayed at a luxury hotel, The Best Western Bayeux, and had time to explore the town. Every other shop was a patisserie, and the rest were chocolatiers or creperies. The French have the best food.

Bayeux is a very famous medieval city, with many beautiful buildings (including the cathedral, above), but its gem is the Bayeux Tapestry. It is a piece of cloth nearly 70 ft long and almost 1000 years old. It was supposedly sewn by William the Conqueror's wife, Queen Matilde, after his victory at the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry tells the story of his victory in rich colors and detail. It is mind-blowing to realize that something to fragile has lasted so long and is still perfectly intact.

After visiting the tapestry, we went out to dinner. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was AMAZING. We had a three course meal. Being in France and feeling adventurous, I got escargots (delicious), tripe (also delicious, despite being cow stomach, or the lining of a cow's stomach...same thing), and creme caramel for dessert. That combined with wonderful French wine and fabulous waiters made for a really great night.

By the time we got back to our hotel, we were incredibly exhausted. So, I took a fast shower (where there was no shower curtain...awkward) and collapsed into bed. A few of us woke up early the next morning and went out for breakfast at a local patisserie. I got a "pepito" which is like a croissant. I don't know exactly what was in it, but I'm sure it was something along the line of deliciousness and rainbows. Best. Thing. Ever.

Afterward, we went to a local French market, where there were rows of fruit, cheese, wine, meat, and vegetable stands. There were even live ducks, geese, chickens, and rabbits to purchase. I tried to convince our professor to let us buy some ducklings to bring back to England, but he didn't think ASE would like that very much.

After picking up some lunch for the day (baguettes and cheese), we headed off to our next visit: Mont St. Michel. The old monastery is located on an island in the English Channel and it not accessible when the tide is in. Luckily, we went when the tide was out, so there was no problem. But, we warned by the officials there that if we didn't move the bus by 2pm, we would be in trouble.

Mont St Michel is surrounded by a quaint walled town, with tons of little shops and cafes. We had to trek by them all, all the way to the top to get to the monastery. So many steps! Those monks must have had great calves...

Our professor, who had been many times before, found a secret passageway for us to all climb up. It was so narrow, and a group of French people were watching us and laughing as we tried to go up it. Our professor's thoughts sum it up: "Nothing better than the feeling of your buttocks being squeezed by medieval stone." Sure.
The view from Mont St Michel was spectacular, and we had a great day to be there. Since the tide was out, sand was all around us, and if you leave early enough, you can actually walk across to the numerous islands surrounding MSM. Unfortunately, we didn't get to do this because of time restraints (we would have most likely been stranded when the tide came in), but it is definitely going on the bucket list.

The monastery itself was breathtaking, and I had a great time there. In the 1800's, it was used as a prison, Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables and Hunchback of Notre Dame) was actually held there. There is this vertical ladder (below) that was attached to a wheel, and prisoners had to turn the wheel like a hamster by running inside of it to pull things up to the top of the building. Crazy!

After MSM, we headed off to Abbe de la Lucerne, a gorgeous medieval abbey, that is in the process of being restored after centuries of neglect. We pretty much got to wander around on our own, looking at all the different buildings and exploring whatever seemed interesting.

On our adventures around the abbey, we found a gate. And being the explorers that we are, we decided to go through the gate and into the creepy French woods, where who knows what could be hiding. We actually only found an old dairy farm, but it was still pretty cool. We pretended we medieval peasants for a few minutes before we realized it was much cooler to be in the 21st century - so, we went back to the bus and caught the last few minuted of the Liverpool-Sunderland game on the radio. Liverpool lost, 1-0, in case you were wondering.

Saturday came to an end by stopping at an Irish pub in Bayeux (yes, I know) and grabbing dinner. This time, the meal was less impressive, but still good. I got Oysters, porc au caramel (pork in a caramel sauce) and a Normandy apple tart. Then, it was off to bed.

Sunday, our last day in France, was spent visiting some of the most important WWII monuments: the beaches of Normandy. First, we stopped at Pointe du Hoc. Here, 225 American rangers landed and had to scale steep cliffs to overtake German guns and missiles. This is right across the bay from Omaha beach, so the landings would have been impossible if the rangers failed. Fail they did not, although over half of them lost their lives in the process. The area was scattered with huge holes were bombs had fallen, and many bunkers. We were able to go into them, but I didn't post the pictures of the insides because of how immensely creepy they are. Here is a photo of the outside of a bunker, and the holes scattering the ground.

This is the rock face the rangers had to scale, all while under enemy fire. The Germans would literally drop grenades over the edge of the cliff onto the rangers climbing up.
After Pointe du Hoc, we continued onto Omaha Beach. It was incredibly moving to see the monuments there, but I was deeply disappointed with the rest of it. All along the beach now, there are houses where people stay in the summer. the concrete slabs which had previously held German guns now hold beach houses. There was a "D-Day Cafe" and an Omaha Motel. On Juno Beach there was even a casino. And I don't mean a few blocks back from the beach, I mean, literally on the beach. It blew my mind that this could be allowed to happen.

Luckily, some parts of the beaches were preserved and respected. We visited the American Cemetery in Normandy next, and it was awe inspiring. Over 10,000 men are buried there, all of whom died in the D-Day invasions. The museum and cemetery were incredible - Words cannot really describe.

Like I said, not all the beaches were kept the way they were in WWII. Gold Beach now has a pier and many houses and shops.
But farther down on Sword Beach, some of the guns and battlements still remain. It was incredible to think that this gun may have been pointed at an Allied warship, and still points there to this day. There are constantly stories in Normandy about people who go to the beaches, dig in the sand, and still find ammunition, and even bomb shells. There is a special police force which deals with the possibly live ammunition that people find on the beaches.
Off in the distance off of Sword Beach, the Mulberries still float in the water. They were temporary harbors constructed by the Allied forces.
We then headed back to Caen to catch the Ferry home. It wasn't an overnight trip, so we got to hang out on deck, watch a movie, and just relax after a non-stop weekend.

We didn't get back to Bath until around midnight, and I slept for a long time! Now, I just have three more days until I leave for my Fall break adventure in Scandinavia! Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo in ten days!

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