Out and About in France: Normandy and Brittany

6 May

A month ago, USCers invaded Normandy.

At the outset, the weather was not in our favour. Thick fog and rain threatened to jeopardize the operation. It was a long journey to the landing beaches, and everyone was tired due to the early departure. We attempted to sleep, but were inhibited by our tour guide Mirek’s hour-long lecture on the history of Normandy.

As awesome as Mirek is, his tour guide “method” can be quite fatiguing. He tends to talk well beyond people’s attention spans.

Anyway, our first stop was the Caen Memorial, probably one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited and certainly the best on World War II. The exhibits do a great job of tracing the events that led to the war, the operations during the war itself, and the aftermath. The museum has a rather chilling atmosphere — the section on the Holocaust is particularly poignant and haunting. Unfortunately, we barely had an hour to visit the exhibits, which was not nearly enough.

We then watched two films about the Normandy invasion. The first was a side-by-side comparison of German and Allied footage, showing the preparations for the invasion and the battles themselves. It was incredibly captivating, especially with a dramatic, Williamsesque musical score. The film culminated with the two sides coming together in a flyover shot of Omaha Beach, cutting between the invasion and footage of the beach today.

The second film was a very informative account of the invasion, the strategic movements of each army and the battles. More sweet music too.

Afterwards, we headed to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery for ourselves.

The beach was beautiful and tranquil, and it was impossibly difficult to imagine the death and violence that had taken place there 65 years earlier. Similarly, it was difficult for the painful reality of the endless rows of crosses to really sink in. All in all, a very emotional place.

I made it my mission to find at least one soldier from New Hampshire, which I thought would take forever. As soon as I made this vow, however, the very first cross I saw was for someone from NH. Quelle coincidence.

After our visit, we drove through some lovely Norman countryside on our way into Brittany and Saint-Malo. I was happy to return to this area, as it was (and is) one of my favourite parts of France. A few of us ate dinner at a nice creperie, where I had a “galette complete” for my main course and a delicious crepe with apple cider-flavored ice cream for dessert. Breton food, mmm mmm.

That night, we walked out to the Grand Bé, a small island accessible at low tide that overlooks the city . Although the tide was coming in and the footpath to the island wasn’t far from water’s edge, we ignored the warning signs and enjoyed the view and the darkness on the island. We made sure not to spend too much time there, heading back to our hotel after stopping for a little bit in a nice rustic bar.

The next morning was rainy and grey, making for a somewhat less enjoyable tour of the city walls. I managed to score major brownie points when Mirek asked what the 7 Celtic nations are and I gave them all. I have no life.

I was thrilled about our next stop — Dinan — as it’s one of my favourite little towns in France. The wonderfully preserved architecture, especially on the “Rue du Petit Fort,” my favourite street in France, is so fairy tale-esque. I hyped it by referring to it as “The Beauty and the Beast Street,” and I don’t think my friends were disappointed.

For lunch, we hit up yet another creperie. Whilst eating, the sky finally cleared up and gave to way to some beautiful spring weather. We spent the rest of our time in Dinan visiting a little park / zoo with deer and some colorful but aggressive birds.

The group returned to Saint-Malo for the afternoon, which turned out to be wonderfully relaxing. We spent most of the day on the beach and on the rocks, taking in the sun (and dipping our feet in the frigid water). The Emerald Coast was gorgeous.

Our group dinner that night was amazing. I regretted not ordering the impressive seafood platter for my appetizer, but I did get my first taste of foie gras instead. Pretty good, but maybe a little overrated. That much fat definitely isn’t necessary. My main course, however, was a delicious melange of fish, scallops, and mashed potatoes (both regular and purple!) Made me miss New England food. We also had some good Breton Cola to go with it.

The highlight of dinner, however, was Sylvie’s “bonanza” (or was it “extravaganza”?) dessert. It was a surprise to all of us, but it didn’t disappoint. The dish was essentially a sampler with raspberry sorbet, chocolate mousse, fig ice cream, and creme brulee. Wonderfully delicious.

The following day we headed to Mont Saint-Michel. Sadly, my favourite thing about the place — the impressive view as you approach — was ruined by some heavy morning fog. It was Palm Sunday, so we had to tour the abbey before the hordes of tourists and pilgrims arrived. I would have rather spent more time exploring the village and surrounding areas than the abbey itself, which I find rather underwhelming.

I did end up having some time to eat lunch in a nice little park under the sun. By the time we left, the fog had cleared and we got a great view of the Mont:

All in all, a nice weekend trip and definitely more relaxing than our trip to Provence. I love the Norman and Breton countryside, but I’m hesitant about applying to those regions for my teaching assistantship in 2010-2011; the constant rain and greyness puts me off a bit.






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