It seems every time I commit to catching up with this blog, I just fall further behind. Right now I am in Florence, Italy, and I’ve got a keyboard that is close to a standard American one, though it has a few differences that are throwing me off. For example, the apostrophe is where the question mark normally is, so I keep having to pause whenever I want to create a conjunction. Excuses aside, let’s get back to the storyline. Today’s entry is from my time in Bayeux.
The story of my visit to Bayeux actually begins with my brief stopover in the town of Caen, which is on the way between Rouen and Bayeux. I visited Caen to go to the World War II memorial museum, which is one of the better WW2 museums I’ve been to in my time. Additionally it has memorial gardens in the back and a restored German bunker. I would have liked to visit a few more things in Caen before leaving, such as the castle, but I only had a short window before my train to Bayeux, so I’ll just have to come back one day.
Bayeux is a town I told myself I would one day return to. Three years ago I day tripped out to Bayeux from Paris and really liked the feel of the town. I would have stayed a day or so but my schedule at the time didn’t allow for it. My return to Bayeux thus felt like fulfilling a promise.
In Bayeux I got picked up from the train station by my host Nathalie, who lives with her husband and two children in a house in the northeast part of Bayeux. That said, Bayeux isn’t that big and you can walk almost anywhere, so it’s not like I was far away from anything in town. As for the house, I was surprised by how modern it was. Being not in the historic core, it must be newer than most of the buildings in Bayeux. It was really nice. Dare I say, it was ballerific. Ok, so that’s probably not the best description, but let’s just say it was the best Air B&B accommodations I’ve stayed at so far. Nathalie and her husband spoke a little bit of English; enough for basic communication. It’s these sorts of situations that make me wish I knew a bit of French so that I could chat a bit with French people. Still, I got by with just my basic French words and phrases, so anyone else who is English-only shouldn’t be afraid to give France a try.
The day after my arrival I had been planning on taking a train out to Mont St Michele but the train schedules were awful for getting out there. I would have had to get on a 7:30am train and I would have been stuck at Mont St Michele until the late afternoon. Instead I opted to take a spot on a minivan that ran daily between one of the Bayeux hotels and Mont St Michele, and booked a seat for the next day. With this change of plans, my second day in Bayeux was redirected to other things. I paid a visit to the Wednesday morning market and the town cathedral in the morning. The Bayeux cathedral is nearly as large as the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which is impressive for a small town like Bayeux. Although Gothic in design, it has some distinctively Norman artwork carved into the stone on the inside. Unfortunately I’m not able to upload any photos to Blogger at this time so you’ll just have to wait on seeing what I’m talking about. Once finished at the cathedral, I went back to the house to pack my daypack and then went over to the bus station. From there I caught a bus to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. I have no family or friends of family buried there, and had visited it last time, but I felt compelled to come back. Visiting the cemetery is an undeniably powerful experience, even if you’re not a history buff. The thousands of white crosses marking the tombs of the dead is a sight you will not soon forget. Particularly moving are the ones for the soldiers whose bodies could not be identified. After walking the length of the cemetery and back, I descended down to the beach. 71 years has removed nearly all signs of what happened on that beach, though you can still find scattered sections of pillboxes and bunkers here and there. For the sight of such a horrific battle, it’s a strangely peaceful place. People are out walking, the breeze is blowing, and the small waves gently slide over the sand. It started to rain lightly and my time there was coming to an end, so I returned to the bus stop and caught the bus back to Bayeux.
The next day was the long-awaited trip to Mont St Michele, which had been an unrealized goal of the 2012 Europe trip. A van that leaves at 9:00am and goes directly to the parking lot at the other end of the bridge is a lot better than a 7:30am train that only takes you to a few miles away and then you would have to catch a bus the rest of the way. It took just over an hour to reach Mont St Michele from Bayeux, and during the ride I was intrigued to learn that our driver, a guy named Benoit, was a former entertainer who used to work in Malaga, Spain. Mont St Michele lay at the northwestern edge of my European journey, and reaching it was almost like reaching the end of a pilgrimage, only not as dramatic and with the pilgrim being a silly American tourist. As some of you know, Mont St Michele is a village with an abbey at the top of town. It’s famous because each day it temporarily becomes an island when the tide comes in. From what I understand, only 40 or so people actually live on Mont St Michele, so it’s much like Venice in that you have a small local population that is overrun each day by thousands of tourists. Even with the tourist horde, Mont St Michele was still a worthwhile visit for me. I hiked up to the top of the hill and explored the abbey and got plenty of photos along the way. The abbey gives Mont St Michele something of a citadel appearance, and apparently it was the one part of Normandy that was never captured by the English during the Hundred Years War. After awhile at Mont St Michele I returned to the minivan and I and the other people riding in it returned to Bayeux. On the way back we stopped at this biscuit shop which one of the other guests had heard about. I didn’t buy anything, but there were free samples lying around, so I helped myself to a few of those. Ok, maybe a lot of those. I also may have fallen asleep on the ride back to Bayeux. I’m really not sure. Back in Bayeux I visited the famous Bayeux Tapestry and then went over to the Battle of Normandy Museum. At this point I’ve watched and read enough World War 2 material to write some sort of term paper on several of the campaigns, but I still frequently visit World War 2 museums. Right by the Battle of Normandy Museum is the British War Cemetery, which serves much the same function as the American Cemetery, albeit it has soldiers from multiple nations, including a few Russians and Germans. Most striking to me about this cemetery was that many of the tombstones had messages from friends or loved ones carved into them. Children saying goodbye to fathers they hardly knew. Wives to husbands they missed dearly. Visiting places like that isn’t easy, but it’s important we remember the price of war and how it touches both the dead and everyone connected to them. As I left the cemetery the day was ending, so I returned to the house.
My final full day in Bayeux was not overly eventful. I slept in a little and spent part of the morning making plans for my train schedule from Bayeux to Amboise the next day. In the afternoon I visited the seaside town of Arromanches. I arrived in Arromanches by bus and got off at the hill overlooking the town. It also was where the Arromanches 360 Theater was. The 360 Theater is an interesting setup, where you have a room with nine screens all around you. I watched a 15 minute video on the D-Day invasion, which was cool, but a little overwhelming since the video is all around you rather than just on a single screen in front. Not all the screens are active at all times, but at a few points all are, and I’m guessing that it is meant to mimic that audio/visual overload that a soldier would experience in the heat of combat. The film finished and I descended the hill to Arromanches proper. There’s really not much of anything to do in Arromanches other than just walk around and take photos. Arromanches was the sight of a massive artificial harbor that was built right after the D-Day invasion and remnants of it are still visible in the water. Speaking of water, I did see a pair of girls go out for a swim, and I imagine that English Channel water is very cold. Being a seaside town, Arromanches has the saltwater smell in the air, along with the sound of seagulls and waves, which reminds me of going to the beach back in San Diego. I walked along the seaside promenade for awhile and got some photos before heading to the bus stop and returning to Bayeux. Nothing much happened the rest of the day, but I wasn’t looking to do anything else at that point. All my sightseeing was done at that point.
The next day I got my things together and left for Amboise, which will be the topic of the next post. It is now 2:20am, and I am the only guy here in the hostel lobby except for the dude behind the front desk. I really ought to go to bed at this point. The post on Amboise should be shorter than this one, so I may just try to crank it out tomorrow night. We’ll see.