Croissant Land: PART ONE

After touring Dover Castle Monday,September 8, we checked weather, winds and tides again. Our goal since we left Orr’s Island June 6th was to reach our winter berth before the end of September. So, every day was a potential passage day towards our chosen winter home, Ipswich on the east coast of England.

On Tuesday, September 9, winds were still on the nose for our NE sail up to the mouth and across the Thames to Orwell River. Worse, the tides were only running in a favorable direction during the night. And, the forecast was the same up to and through the weekend.

So, why not go to France? We’re in Dover. There are lots of ferries running to and fro Calais. And, I’d always wanted to see Normandy after Max’s and my Betsy’s descriptions of their visits. Plus, Max wanted to visit some landmarks of another soldier’s sacrifice, that of Joan d’Arc.

Ferry and car booked, knapsack packed, and off we went the next day, Wednesday, September 10th.

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We arrived 90 minutes later in Calais, picked up a rental car and exited the ferry terminal only to see immigrants trying to slip across the channel. Seeing these people wanting a better life but unable to reach it legally was a reminder of how fortunate many of us are just due to being where we were born.

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(Notice more immigrants in the side mirror)

Our itinerary was flexible with the Normandy D-Day beaches as our designation; and, since we would be driving through places associated with Joan d’Arc, we added those to our sight-seeing list. Rouen being the first.

It was in this city where she was brought for her trial, staying in this tower.

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This building is what remains from a castle constructed by King Philip II Augustus after his conquest of Normandy in 1204.

Rouen was where, after six months of questioning with a final verdict of heresy, she was burned. This young girl age 19 led a French army to victory over the English only to be used as a pawn in the political wars fought between France and England. She had been captured on May 23, 1430, by Jean of Luxembourg who was in cahoots with the Duke of Burgundy who was in bed with the English.

In late November, she was handed over to the English who desperately wanted to squelch any inspiration this young maiden engendered in fellow French citizens. To do so meant proving she wasn’t God’s messenger but the devil’s. By condemning her as a heretic, the English were also smearing any legitimacy King Charles VII of France had earned thanks to Joan’s valor and belief in his right to be King of France.

In spite of standing up to a learned panel this illiterate young Maid held her own; however, she couldn’t fight the twisting of words and meanings, and on May 23rd she was deemed guilty of crimes: her pride; her disobedience of the church; her indecency (dressing in men’s clothing); the audacity of believing God chose her; and, her stubborn persistence in believing her visions were true, something the Church didn’t validate.

On May 24th, she recanted when they began to read out her definitive sentence in front of the stake. She was given life in prison and agreed to wear women’s clothing. However, May 28th she renewed her faith in believing God did choose her. Joan was now seen as a relapsed heretic and, therefore, had to be put to death by burning.

On May 30, 1431, this young girl was led to the stake. The place is marked by a garden in one of Rouen’s Squares. Talk about sobering. Her history was a powerful lead-up to another place where young people sacrificed themselves, each devastating.

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From there we drove to Caen, still unsure of where we would be stopping for the night. We have found, however, at every Tourist Information Office in France, they couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, it was because of the guy at the Caen office we decided to stay in Bayeux, just a little bit further towards D-Day memorials and beaches.

Not having reservations, we found a lot of hotels, inns, B&Bs were chock block full (September coupled with sun and warmth drew a lot of tourists to this part of the world, us being two of them). Fortunately, one hotelier called several places for us and, voila!, we had a room.

And, what a place THAT was.

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When we managed to drive through the gates we were greeted with ‘how did you find us?!’ for there wasn’t even a sign out front. The reason being, the Domaine de Bayeux had only been open since this summer, and it was still unfinished in certain rooms. But, who cared? It was simply gorgeous.

We had a room in the old carriage building and decided to stay two nights.

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We shared some drinks with fellow travelers in the garden,

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which led to a small orchard at the end of the property (and where I picked some apples for car food).

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The breakfast was to die for… the room as well as the fare.

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It was at breakfast that I decided a worthwhile investment would be in someone who could sew B&C (baguette and croissant) pants. It seemed no matter how hard I tried to keep crumbs from showering me, it never worked.

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So, why not a design that camouflages them? That, and an elastic waistband, and I’d be good to go :)

The next day, Thursday, September 11, we headed to the D-Day beaches.

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The Battle of Normandy began with planning back in 1943, code named Overlord. General Eisenhower was appointed Commander-in-Chief with General Montgomery in charge of the land-based troops and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Naval Forces (Operation Neptune). You may remember that Ramsay was also the one in charge of Operation Dynamo, which rescued troops at Dunkirk.

June 5th was the selected date only to be moved to the 6th due to weather. On that day the sacrifice began with the landing of allied troops on beaches and behind enemy lines by parachutes.

There is so much literature about this 100-day engagement (from June 6 to August 21st, 1944) and written far better than I can even pretend to do so here, so I’ll just note the places we toured. Many more exist along the stretch of this coastline and inland, but we decided to hit some of the main ones, knowing we will return.

First stop: Arromanches where one can see the remains of the artificial port or Mulberry Harbor. This port was used to supply troops as they fought the Germans during Operation Overlord.

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Second stop: Longues-sur-Mer, the only coastal defense battery (German) retaining its original guns.

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Max doing his usual inquisitive touring…

Looking at the gun…

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Looking out through the bunker…

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and, my looking in.

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Third stop: Normandy American Cemetery, with its row upon row of white crosses and an excellent visitor center, if you only could see one site, this is it. Forgive the repetition of the crosses. It is just too hard to stop paying homage to those who will never leave these grounds.

The memorial featured an inspiring bronze statue, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”

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The memorial had detailed graphic displays on the walls surrounding the statue explaining the strategy and tactics.

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From there, you walk into an expanse of startling white crosses, and the sadness takes over.

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Looking down to the beach.

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Looking up from the beach.

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Just thinking and realizing what occurred here.

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Fourth stop: La Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Battalion of Rangers lost 135 out 225 men, neutralizing the Germans’ ability to cover both the Omaha (to the west) and Utah (to the east) beaches.

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What had to be scaled:

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Once scaled, there were huge craters from allied bombing, which made fighting extremely difficult.

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Fifth stop: Sainte-Mere-Eglise where the iconic photo of the American paratrooper John Steeple caught on a church tower.

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The effigy is a little cheesy but tells one of the amazing stories from this Battle. He lived, hanging there for two hours only to be captured and then later escaping. He died in North Carolina 1969.

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We wished we had stopped at the German Cemetery. At breakfast some people told us there were statements by the local French who were alive during the German occupation. One person stated he/she would never, ever step into that cemetery but they did not blame the current generation. It would have been interesting to hear others’ thoughts concerning the German army.

The actual battlefield is only one tragic reminder of what war costs, specifically WWII. On April 28, 1944, American sailors and soldiers were practicing landing on Slapton Sands, England, a beach serving as a rehearsal for the Omaha Beach landing in June. While Exercise Tiger was occurring, nine German torpedo boats attacked alerted by heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay. A total of 749 American troops were lost (killed or declared missing). This information was released 43 years after the event; however, the dead and missing were honored by some veterans of this tragic exercise, erecting a monument soon after the war on Omaha Beach.

Many other stories await anyone who wishes to step back in time to witness the horrors and valor often associated with war. We will return.

Leaving the next morning, prior to driving to the Loire Valley, we made sure to see the Bayeux Tapestry. This amazing piece of embroidery is over 130 feet long by 20 inches high and was commissioned in the 1070’s by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror (aka “The Bastard”, Duke of Normandy, then King of England), as propaganda for William’s claim to the English throne.

The original stretches behind glass in a half-lit room and relates the story of how William and Harold II met and fought for the right to rule England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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I could try to relate the set-up for this battle but I’d only confuse you along with myself. The names alone, such as AEthelred the Unready (Edward’s father), Cnut the Great, and Sweyn Forkbeard, perfectly convey the stormy, convoluted history of this region in the 10th and 11th centuries. (For instance, Harold had just finished two weeks prior fending off Hardrada King of Norway’s attempt to claim the English throne. When you think about it, what was it about this island that engendered so much envy? Beer? Tea? Scones?? or just because ‘it’s there’?)

Just to give you the reasons why each would think they should be England’s king: Edward the Confessor’s mother was a sister of William’s grandfather; Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law; and, Hardrada’s nephew had had a pact with the Danish King of England, Harthacut.

Edward promised the throne to William in 1064, but on his deathbed January 5, 1066, left it to Harold. Harold claimed the throne and was supported by the Witan, a council of English lords. Unfortunately, for Harold, William didn’t agree.

This tapestry represents Odo’s idea of ensuring his and his bro’s view of the Battle was the correct retelling of the Battle. The figures in the 32 scenes are detailed enough to see displeasure, fear, and happiness. The descriptions and sequence slant the story to William and Odo’s liking, no surprise considering who ordered it.

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Not only is this piece of art a beautiful piece of history, but also an example of effective medieval PR.

If we had stayed in Caen our first night versus continuing on to Bayeux, we would have visited William’s ducal home, his abbey (Abbaye-aux-Homees and Abbaye-aux-Dames) serving as his and his wife’s, Matilda of Flanders, burial sites respectively. There’s an entertaining site about William worth reading just for the fun of it: http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-william-the-conqueror. But, for more clarity and detail on the who, what, when, where story of William, just surf the net. And, let me know how you get on with those early English, tongue-twisting names.

Following our view of the tapestry and a quick stroll through the requisite cathedral, another mine’s-bigger-than-yours building,

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we drove to Amboise in the Loire Valley nourished by our orchard-fresh apples from Domaine de Bayeux.

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Again, without any reservations, most places were booked but the convenient tourism office located a small hotel just around the corner. We grabbed it, definitely nothing like our first two nights, but clean, quiet, and welcoming.

In this beautiful town on the Loire, we toured two more sites. The first was Chateau Royal d’Amboise. Built on a fortified stronghold by Fulk, Count of Anjou, in the 11th century, this chateau was confiscated by Louis XI in 1431 in lieu of executing the traitorous owner, Louis d’Amboise. Nice exchange, for it became a favorite of the royal family with kings constantly remodeling both buildings and grounds, from Charles VIII (1470-1498) to Louis XII (1462-1515) to Francis I (1494-1547).

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The latter king’s time of residence encompasses one of the most interesting periods due to his friendship and patronage of Leo, as in Leonardo da Vinci. Francis I invited him to come and live in Amboise, and in 1515, this Renaissance inventor, artist, and scientist did just that. The story goes he rolled up three of his favorite canvases, Mona Lisa being one, stuffed them into the saddlebags, and headed for France with several of his disciples, including Francesco Melzi and Battista de Villanis, his faithful Milanese servant and vegetarian cook.

The king gave him Chateau du Clos Luce built in 1471;

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and, over the next three years, Leo enjoyed the remaining years of his life, painting in the garden,

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dreaming up more inventions, doing some urban planning, sitting by the fire waiting for Battista to serve him up some medieval veggie fare,

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and conversing with his king friend. A tunnel connected the two residences, allowing Frank and Leo to visit at will without the nuisance of guards and peepers.

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He died in May 2, 1519 at the age of 67.

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The brochure on Chateau du Clos Luce says “tourists are told” he’s buried at the Chateau Royal’s St. Hubert Chapel, and we did see his tomb.

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(I had to snap a pic of the flowers by Leo’s grave. These were some of mom’s favorites, and she would have loved the aroma.)

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Whether he’s really there or not, who knows, but it makes sense. After all, who wants to tote a body around in central France during the summer without A/C?

I must say both Max and I were astonished to learn of this relationship and to know we were walking in the rooms where one of the greatest renaissance thinkers lived. This nugget of history was definitely one of the most surprising during our recent travels.

Stopping for a libation on our walk back to our hotel we met a couple from California. We started sharing our adventures on the road, specifically France’s highway toll system.

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Max told them how we had entered a payment lane that required a special token card unbeknownst to us. How we discovered this riveting bit of information was twice putting our credit card in only to have it rejected. But, we’re not talking simply sliding back out. We’re talking having the card on the second attempt spat out and sliding under the car. It’s like having a robot stick its tongue out at you, and not nicely.

Fortunately, the card was retrievable but only after getting out of the car and crawling underneath.

Now we were stuck. We couldn’t go backward because of cars lining up behind us and we couldn’t go forward because we couldn’t pay. We couldn’t pay because we didn’t have that special card.

Pressing the button for help, a woman responds saying something about a green arrow. We looked around. No green arrow, only a bright, alarming red indicating the stupid tourists hadn’t paid yet. Asking her to raise the gate so we could drive over to pay at the side building, she refused and kept saying something about a green arrow.

By this time, Max, who’s much more patient than I, lost his temper and started saying very precisely and very loudly to the little box, WE CAN’T BACK UP AND WE CAN’T PAY HERE SO OPEN THE GATE.

Needless to say, she didn’t. So, finally, when enough cars behind us realized we weren’t going anywhere and, hence, they weren’t either, reversed and got in other lanes, we then were able to inch backwards and try another lane. By doing so we saw the infamous green arrow, which was flashing above the last lane to the right and which evidently took cash.

Well, the best part was this couple exclaimed ‘that happened to us! we, too, had our credit card spat out and had to crawl under the car!!’.

I must say it was nice to know someone else had experienced the exact same treatment, including the vomited card. All we could think was it created a constant source of entertainment for the tollbooth takers who probably manually controlled how and for whom the card spit-it-upeth and were roaring with laughter. With any luck they had it on tape until the next unsuspecting smuck rolled into that lane. Live and learn. Let’s just say all four of us are now much more cautious when approaching a French toll gate…

And, just so you know, my feet pay testimony to seeing four impressive sites in eight hours…

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On to the next adventure!

3 thoughts on “Croissant Land: PART ONE

  1. Stephanie Cheney

    Awesome exploits you two! The toll system in France is interesting. I recall it was a very early user of credit cards for payment. I’ll have to remember to use the green arrow lane next month. :)

    Reply

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