France is a few days in my rear-view mirror, but I still wanted to share a few quick stories about my time there. I flew from Hong Kong to London to Paris (HKG to LHR to CDG in airport parlance), picked up a rental car and drove a few hours to the charming town of Bayeux in the Normandy region of France. I rented a little flat on a quiet back street and used that as a jumping off point for several days of adventure.
Just walking around the town was an experience. I’m always awed by how old everything is in Europe. The origins of the town of Bayeux can be traced back to a Gallo-Roman settlement in the first century BC. It has survived a number of invaders over the years, from the Viking raids in the 9th century to Hitler in the 20th. I was fascinated by the cathedral, which is 1,000 years old, and the central role it played in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England (Visit our Facebook page for a bit more on that story and to see a short video I took of the bells ringing one night as I walked back to my flat).
I chose Bayeux, because I wanted to tour the World War II sites around Normandy. My wife and I were in Paris several years ago and my one regret from that trip was that we didn’t have time for a Normandy day trip, so I wanted to right that wrong.
To make the most of my time, I hired an experienced guide named Colin McGarry. He’s originally from England, but met and married a French girl years ago and has been guiding around Normandy since the 1980’s. He met me at me flat the morning after my arrival and we drove first to Omaha Beach. He spent time talking about the big themes of the invasion (e.g. strategy, logistics, etc.), but also took a deep dive into many personal stories and recollections of both Americans and their German counterparts on that day of days. I’ve read several books on World War II and watched a number of films like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, but nothing can quite bring that history alive like walking the beach where so many struggled ashore or running your hand over the broken concrete and twisted rebar of a German machine gun nest.
From the beach, we took the short drive up to the American Cemetery and spent time discussing how it came to be, the soldiers that are still missing and the upcoming 75th anniversary next year. We also walked to dozens of specific graves where Colin told me stories of heroism and heartbreak from D-Day as seen through that particular soldier’s eyes. Throughout the rest of the day, we visited a number of other sites around the area including Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, St. Mere Eglise, Brecourt Manor, St. Mere du Mont and Carentan. The entire day was both fascinating and, as you might imagine, very moving. If you enjoy history, I’d encourage you to add Normandy to your to-do list and if you want to do it with a guide, hire Colin. He was wonderful. Touch base with me and I’ll send you his contact info or you can Google his name and track him down on the internet.
The next day I drove a few hours south and west of Bayeux to Mont Saint-Michel. It is a small island, a few hundred meters off shore, that has a population of about 50 and is home to a famous monastery built in the 8th century. Because it is relatively close to shore, the island is completely surrounded by water during high tide, but is accessible to visitors when the tide is out. I paid a few Euro for an audio guide and spent time walking from building to building and room to room around the 17-acre site, learning about the hundreds of years of history that preceded my visit. I finished around noon and was starting to get hungry, so I stopped into a small restaurant for lunch and ordered a meal that the island has become famous for: a very fluffy omelet. When it first arrives, you think you will have a hard time eating it all, but when your fork slices through it, you realize it has an omelet texture on the outside and an airy fluff of egg bubbles on the inside. The best way I can describe it is to imagine the head of foam on a beer. That is the texture of the inside of the omelet.
An unexpected surprise
Hunger satisfied, I returned to my car and punched in the coordinates for a little town called Villedieu-les Poêlles. Before leaving home, I read an article about a famous cookware company in the town called Mauviel 1830. My wife loves to cook, so I thought I’d swing by the town, tour the copper workshops and see if I could find her a gift that she would enjoy and, perhaps more importantly, would fit in my backpack. When I got to the town, I stopped by the tourism office for directions and learned that Mauviel was not the only artisan factory in the town. In fact, the town was loaded with craftsmen (and women) who, along with their predecessors, had been practicing their trades there since the middle ages.
One in particular that sounded fascinating to me was a bell foundry that is the source of the bells for many of the famous cathedrals in France and around the world. A tour was 8 euros, which ended up being the bargain of the trip. Touring the foundry and learning about the process (little changed for hundreds of years) that goes into making a bell was fascinating. When hired to produce a bell, the craftsman chalks the weight of the bell and the name of the church onto the wooden beam above his station. Then, using a mixture of clay, horse manure and goat hair, he crafts an interior and exterior mold for the bell that, when fitted together, leave a cavity inside where the molten brass is poured. That all sounds difficult enough, until you learn of the complex math involved in calculating the appropriate shape and thickness of the bell so that it will ring the desired note (requested by the church) in perfect pitch over its 250-year life. Today, the calculations are performed by computer. For the hundreds of years prior, the craftsmen had only their brain power, pencil and paper to do the math. Again, it was all really fascinating. Visit our Facebook page for pictures.
After the tour, the day was growing short and I still had a 4-hour drive back to Paris, so I hit the road. I made it to the airport around 10 pm, dropped off the rental car and took a taxi to my hotel. After a few hours sleep, it was back to the airport for an early morning flight to Italy and the next leg of the trip. More on that soon. Thanks for following along.