05.11.2008 24 °C
Approaching Mont St. Michel
On our way from Sarlat to Familly, France, we'd built in an extra night to stop along the way. We chose Chartres, for its famous cathedral. After about a 500 km drive on the superhighways of France (some of which are tolls), we checked into an Etap hotel, basically by an off-ramp, just outside of Chartres. We'd already seen the cathedral. From a distance, it's clearly visible, even before you can tell there's a town. That view's been unchanged for 900 years.
Etap gave us our lowest hotel room price in Europe. It showed. Anica had a single bunk bed above us, and there was a single light for the tiny room. For one night, though, it was fine.
Right away we drove into the centre of Chartres to check out the cathedral. Here was an instance where we felt a little burnt-out from sightseeing, and still having a let-down feeling after my Mom and Dad left. Anica was clearly not impressed with another cathedral, Jenn wasn't exactly oohing and aahing, and all I could do was muster up some enthusiasm I wasn't feeling at first, as in: this is the most famous medieval cathedral, this has more stained-glass windows than anywhere else, this church is older than Angkor Wat, etc.
Eventually, we grew to appreciate the distinct blue colour of the stained glass, the chapel with the veil of Mary, and the elevated pipe organ. Chartres will never be our favourite, though. What finally engaged Anica, who'd been cooped up in the car all day, was the Renaissance-era choir screen. I know, you're probably thinking: well sure, what kid wouldn't perk up at the sight of a Renaissance-era choir screen? Well, this is intricately carved in white marble, and follows the ambulatory path through 38 panels depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary. We played at guessing what each carving showed, and Anica knew many of the scenes.
Chartres Cathedral, with some of the ever-present scaffolding
Chartres is not that pretty from the outside, although gives the eye plenty to look at. We walked all around it, then through the town itself. There's some nice pedestrian-only areas. We bought Anica a French-vocabulary sticker book and a French magazine/activity book. She's been showing a real interest in learning and using French lately. We've been through so many countries, and she's been shielded from talking to strangers, but we've been dealing with French for a while now (also in Tunisia), so she's using some French phrases with other people and translating every sign she sees with us. In our school system, they start French classes in grade 4, which is what she'll be in next year, so it's great timing. Dinner was Tex-Mex. Okay, that's not exactly a "when in Rome" decision, but there's seldom an "ethnic" restaurant other than Italian in a French town, and this turned out really well. My chili con carne was exactly what I'd expect to get in the north of France from a chef who's probably never been to a "Lone Star".
When arrived the next in Familly - whoops! We couldn't actually FIND Familly, which despite its population explosion (it's over a hundred people at last count!) isn't on any map. Orbec is the nearest town at 8km away, so we eventually found the place by accident from there.
Rural France it is for one week. Very rural: seven kms from the nearest town, one-lane roads, surrounded by fields of cows. We're staying at a Gite, meaning an accommodation attached to the house of the owners. Here there's an acre lot, and, great news for Anica: two kids. A boy, 6, and a girl, 10. Before long, Anica had introduced herself and was playing with them and other kids from the neighborhood. We just let her do her thing, forgetting dinner and bedtime, as it's been a few weeks (!) since she's had other kids to play with.
The big trip from our home base today: Mont St. Michel. It's probably about 250 km from where we're staying. It was a beautiful day for it, today, so off we went. Here we proved fully recovered from any feelings of travel burn-out. Well, except for Anica who was exhausted from playing tag for hours last night!
Mont St. Michel is perhaps the most spectacular setting for a town we've seen anywhere in the world. We saw it first from 25 kilometres away, then all the way out the causeway. If you don't know it by name, you've seen it in pictures: the abbey spire at the top, a pyramid-shaped settlement seeming to float out in the tide. The parking lot actually warns you about the tide: remove your car by 19:30 of be underwater! It's the most dramatic tide-change in all of Europe, a 50 foot difference in depth.
Mont St. Michel, a little closer
We climbed up the single street of tourist shops, and paid to tour the abbey. It's been there almost a thousand years, and the cloisters, refectory, chapel, and ramparts are fascinating. The views over the mudflats are wonderful; with help from the natural rock, the top level of the abbey is about 500 feet above the water.
We took a different road back, more scenic, passing apple orchards in blossom (Normandy is cider country), churches of all shapes and sizes, rough-cut light-coloured stone houses with tiny windows, and the occasional giant road-side Crucifix sculpture. Miraculously enough, we didn't get lost, and even found our "gite" on the first try.
A trip to the English Channel (a mere ditch...) coast today: Honfleur, a quaint seaside town. May 8th is Victory in Europe day, so it's a holiday. A little veterans' parade came marching past us on the cobblestoned high street.
The harbour at Honfleur
Next we crossed a huge suspension bridge and continued on up the coast to where various cliffs are. We had a roadside picnic (there's always a "picque-nicque" spot in France), and eventually headed back after letting Anica poke around a rocky beach.
The way back was not as much fun, because we wanted to go a "different" way, then realized there's a reason for the big suspension bridge: the Seine is very wide near its mouth. We eventually found another bridge to cross, but by then we were dizzy from doing laps around traffic circles, hoping for magical new spokes to emerge. C'est le vie, as they might say here!
Wow - what a day we had! Bayeux and Juno Beach. First, Bayeux, parking by the cathedral and going to see the famous Bayeux tapestry. It's a 70 metre long linen cloth embroidered with coloured woolen threads. Done just after 1066, it tells the story, in 58 panels, of how William the Conqueror came to the throne, including depicting the Battle of Hastings. Not only is this a really cool primary source that any historian would love, it's got a lot of intrinsic appeal, too. Anica loved the whole set-up. Well sure, you're thinking: what kid wouldn't enjoy a fine medieval tapestry in a dark room on a sunny sunny day? That's even better than a Renaissance choir-screen, isn't it? At the Bayeux Tapestry museum, however, everyone gets an audio guide, and the kids get their own audio track. Anica thought that was great. Then there's a movie theatre where we learned more about its making and meaning. Then there' also a museum floor with models of the things the tapestry shows.
For me, the place was a definite highlight of our France visit. The tapestry itself was so lively and detailed that it was astonishing, given the fact it's close to a thousand years old. Horses are galloping, riders shown with their hair blown back, people looking cowardly, sneaky, or brave - it's a real story. It's often called the first comic strip, an apt, if somewhat diminishing, comparison. You walk around in a horseshoe, in a climate and light-controlled room. It is a unique historical artifact.
In the afternoon, we went up to the beaches of the D-Day landing. Unlike the Belgian Flanders, where the World War I battlesites and graveyards have become a dignified, almost organic, part of the countryside, Normandy seems commercial and somewhat crass. But, what can you do when a lot of people want to come? There are bound to be billboards and crass exploitation.
Canada was solely responsible for one of the five D-Day landing beaches, code-named Juno Beach. Five years ago, the Juno Beach Centre opened. It's a privately-funded museum, the idea of some former veterans. After all the times I've taught about Juno Beach, this was a must-see.
Sculpture outside the Juno Beach Centre
The Juno Beach Centre, although nicely done, lacks focus. Both Jenn and I noticed that it was about everything Canada did in World War II, including the homefront, which made us feel that the museum could have been anywhere. I thought it was like "Unit 3" of our Grade 10 textbook put up on walls. The displays should have been more about the Juno landing and the Battle of Normandy. The best part of the visit was the guided tour (the centre's staffed by Canadian university students), where we stood on the beach, peered into an "Atlantic Wall" bunker, and walked over the Nazi tunnels. If you're looking to visit just one Canadian site in France, however, both Jenn and I would recommend Vimy Ridge.
Hands-on History: Anica inside the Juno Beach Centre
More moving was the near-by Canadian cemetery. Understated and pretty, with (yes) maple trees growing, the graves are extremely well-tended. We happened across the tombstone of someone with my last name (which isn't very common). As far as I know, though, he's no relation.
Canadian war cemetery in Normandy
This has been the sunniest and warmest week - by far - we've had in Europe. Yesterday we just enjoyed hanging out at the "gite." Anica played for hours with the kids who live here.
Today we took a drive to the town of Falaise, which is known for having William the Conqueror's castle. This was before he was King of England, and he was getting pretty tired of being called "William the Bastard."
The castle is done up like none other we've seen. They've preserved what they could, then renovated and ultra-modernized the rest to make a high-tech tour. Visual projections complement an audio guide, and other post-modern artworks, to tell the various stories of castle life. "Chess" is a major theme and artistic motif. The whole thing runs automatically as visitors enter each room.
William the Conqueror's got a high-tech castlenow!
With great weather, and a pretty town at our disposal, we bought takeaway food for a picnic. We ate on the public park grounds of what used to be a noble's Chateau, and Anica played at the playground.
Then, just because it was there, we went into this place (museum again?!) that had a collection of "automatons" from French store windows of 1900-1960. So, what delighted French children at Christmastime long ago delighted our Canadian girl today. They just don't make 'em like this any more!
Trust me, they're all sorts of moving parts. Automates Avenue, Falaise, France
"C.H.C. Day = Chartres Huge Cathedral"
Today we went to Chartres. It was long and boring but luckily I took my gravol pill. It was a good, fun whatever drive, though. We stopped for lunch at a gas station for a steak hache and fries for me, Quiche for Mummy and Daddy and cookies and ice cream for dessert. When we got to our Etap near (by 1.8 kilometers) Chartres, we checked out the room and drove to the Cathedral. We parked at the Cathedral parking lot and walked in. Beatiful stained glass! Telling storys of Jesus, Mary or Joseph's lives! Also lots of pretty colurs! I really like the cathedral though it was our 10th or whatever cathedral! We walked around and bought me some stuff and had dinner at a Tex-Mex place. Drove home, G.N.!
Today we went to Familly. Familly is a town in Normandy by the Chunnel (or English Channel). We had Mc-D for lunch. In Lisieux we ate. When we got to the place near us, Orbec, we diden't know which ay to go so we asked the Office de Tourisime (which translate into Office of Tourism) people for help. We went down the road they told us to and not going far enough to see Familly (which we found later) we turned around, went to a different road, took it and finally, saw a metal sign to Familly. When we got to our place, we found out there were kids so I introduced myself.
Before I knew I was playing games I'd either never heard of or they had a diffrent word for it (the family was English). We also played with two other freinds of Georgia (the girl age 10 and a half) and Oliver (the boy age 6). Now I will tell you the games we played. There's 1) Tag: simple easy tag. 2) Stuck in the mud: our old frezze tag - just the English way 3) Dub Dub: hide and seek exept when the person see you they yell dub dub and then you race 4) Snake, Fox and chicken game! Simple the snake chases the fox, the fox chases the chicken and the chicken chases the snake. If you get someone our somebody gets you you bring them to your or his/her prison. So your kept busy with that fame. So I got introduced to the kitten, had dinner, Georgia and I played for a bit, said goodbye, G.N.!
Today we went to Mont Saint Michel. The drive there was long and Daddy missed the exit so we turned around in big city Caen. For lunch we brought picnic stuff so we ate at one of there picnic (or in French pronounced peque-neque) things on the highway. We had olives, meat, bread, chips and cookies. We had a very yummy lunch before going onto the pedistrian bridge to see the highway! When we got to Mt.St. Michel we got tickets and hurried in. Mt St Michel was very exciting and I especially liked the church! Glad we got out of there before seven thirty. Otherwise our car would of been underwater! We started back, not on the highway, me and the kids played Dub-Dub etc., had dinner, G.N.!
"Bayeux and Canada Day!"
Today we went to the Bayeux tapestries. I was very lucky because in only English and French you could get a kids audio guide. It was very good and I was suprised how long it [the tapestry] was. I even got a book called play with William the conqueror and the Bayeux tapestry, which has: games, quizzes, dressing up, do-it-yourself, puzzeles, and recipes. We then had a very good lunch and drove to Juno beach. There we had a very fun tour about the Canadian landing etc.etc. before seeing a movie. it was a bit like the terracotta warriors but it dident go all the way around. Then we went through all of the museum (me doing the kids stuff: special information, drawing, etc.) We then drove home, had dinner, played with the kids, G.N.!