March 9, 2013

Soldiers, Saints, and Swashbucklers

This week, we took the opportunity of the winter "vacances" to rent a car - automatic, no doubt - and zip off to Normandy and Brittany (Normandie et Bretagne) for a few days.

The combination of our activities made for a lot of culture and century jumping, but we had time to absorb the things we saw during our car rides, making it much more manageable.

There is even more to actually say about these main places, and the best advice I have for you is:

Come see for yourself.


Nothing is a more emotional backdrop than a cemetery, let alone one that represents the sacrifices made for our way of life with freedom. We paid our tributes to the Arromanches (Gold Beach), American Cemetery, Pointe du Hoc (Omaha/Utah Beaches), and Sainte-Mère Église (inland, where paratroopers landed). 

Pointe du Hoc (German bunker pictured above) is littered with mine craters and concrete bunkers, and was a key assault location on June 6, 1944. A division of Army Rangers landed on the beaches and bravely scaled the steep cliffs to attack the German stronghold. The church at Sainte-Mère Église (pictured on left) still commemorates the efforts of the Airborne paratroopers with a local museum, and the torn parachute to the right of the clock on the tower (see the white?).

The American Cemetery (pictured on right, and panoramic by title) holds over 9,000 veterans from several wars. Three overwhelming feelings surrounded me as I carefully stepped my way around our heroes: gratitude, peace, and freedom. We cannot take these men and women for granted, and the memorials dotting the seaside of Normandy keep us in touch with reality.

As we continued to take in the gravity of war history winding our way around the back roads of Normandy, we came across an absolute treasure of a cider house. The Calvados department (similar to a county) is well-known in France for their apples, and all related products.

We entered through the arched bridge of the home (pictured above), and found ourselves in a 17th century courtyard of cider-makers. Their entire "store" (really just a room next to the farming equipment) was reasonably priced and the authenticity was unbeatable because of its distance from tourist areas. I don't think we could find this place ever again, and that secures its magic in our memory.

When we finally arrived in Saint-Malo that evening, we struck out to the center to find La Creperie Tournesol...and discovered the fortified medieval island! The creperie was insanely amazing, as it should be in the Brittany region where crepes are king! Marc enjoyed a mystery meat galette (sometimes translations just don't work) and I adored the salmon galette.


This epic concept is best described as a tourist's medieval dream come true. Stunning views, quaint shop signs, hundreds of stairs, steep and mysterious passageways, hidden restaurants, and real-life monks and nuns floating by: yes, this is real. 

But the coolest part of Mont Saint-Michel is the approach to the island: something juts upward in the misty distance, completely independent of the mainland, and proudly wearing its steeple into the sky. As you get closer and closer, the details begin to appear: the interesting symmetry of the abbey, the lower level homes, the enclosing city walls. 

We were able to see most of the inside of the abbey, and the souvenir shops, while a bit redundant, do have some really unique items like dishes, paintings, and local products. I definitely believe Mont Saint-Michel is a must-see, but be prepared for the onslaught of large tour groups and children on field trips who both tend to interrupt your personal space and silent reverie. If you can ignore them, you can easily be swept away by the charms of the towers, cobblestone streets, and abbey cats.

We went back to Saint-Malo again for dinner to try another creperie: Le Corps de Garde. I really wanted to go to this restaurant because it used to be one of the guard houses for the pirates! Saint-Malo was a great location for pirate business back in the day, and one of the highlights for us was walking the ramparts around most of the town - and then realizing our pirate creperie was built into the upper levels of the wall! 

The galettes were normal and delicious, but my dessert crepe was made extra special by the fact that I can now speak enough French to comfortably add a topping to my order. The final result? Chocolate sauce under a layer of crepe, sprinkled with coconut, drizzled with local caramel, with sides of whipped cream and coconut ice cream. Best dessert crepe thus far, mostly because it had my all-star flavors.

I have wanted to make this journey since arriving in Belgium back in 2011, got close last year in Caen, and now that we have done it - it did not disappoint! Every person has to experience this trip for themselves. It takes you back and forth from modern history to the Dark Ages, from battlegrounds to cathedrals, from monks to pirates, and from farms to fortified islands. The variety of cultural sights, coupled with the unique cuisine (Calvados apples, camembert cheese, ciders, Bretagne galettes/crepes and caramels, abundant seafood, and salt meadow lamb at Mont Saint-Michel), makes Normandy and Brittany a true and necessary vacation from the ordinary.