Monday evening through Tuesday, June 6-7, 2011
From my notes scribbled on the itinerary:
From Auxerre, take Train #91158 departs 12:09pm; arrives Paris Bercy Station at 1:46pm
Taxi to Paris St. Lazare Station
Take ICE Train #3311 departs 3:10pm; arrives Caen 4:57pm
When I arrived in Paris on the train from Auxerre, I flagged down a cab and was taken to the north side of the city. There I met the train that would take me along the north coast to Caen, a city in Normandy. The cabbie was very nice and understood English quite well and got me out of that city. The country girl in me was done with Paris.
The train to Caen was crowded. But I found a seat and stowed my big back pack in the bin above it. Then I relaxed. When I arrived at Caen, I was disoriented. I got off the train and walked in the wrong direction in search of my hotel. I found the river, but I saw nothing that resembled a busy commercial district that would contain a hotel like the Mercure Hotel Caen where I had a reservation for two nights. I stopped a woman and asked for directions and she got me pointed correctly toward the northeast. I had to cross a boulevard, the river, and a "basin" to get to Port de Plaisance and away from modern Caen to the heart of the city with its narrower streets and close-set buildings.
Caen was almost completely destroyed during WWII. It was rebuilt in the 1950s, so most of it is modern and kind of ugly. No one neighborhood is completely medieval. Yet it boasts the largest castle fortress in Europe. I would enjoy exploring that the next day after journeying to Falaise by taxi to see the castle where William the Conqueror was said to have been born (and Eleanor of Aquitaine lived occasionally). Falaise Castle was very important to the medieval heirs of Normandy and England.
I had dinner that night at the restaurant attached to the hotel. It was lovely from beginning to end. I had a small table at the front window so I could people watch yet relax. My server was a handsome young man who spoke English and was very kind to me by helping me decipher the menu. I had a wonderful swordfish entrée with dessert and wine. I was so full afterwards I decided to begin exploring the town. Maybe I could work off some of those calories.
As the sun was beginning to go down, I strolled to Place Reine Mathilde, Matilda of Flanders' final resting place, at the Abbey aux Dames. Queen Matilda built the abbey to appease the church for marrying her cousin, William the Conqueror. I was mildly interested in the building, but it was locked so I could not go inside. From the exterior it was obvious that the Abbey aux Dames was magnificent once, but now the exterior stone crumbled. I admired the red door with its metal strap work. I have learned since my visit that the metalwork on doors was a task during which blacksmiths could show their creativity as well as protect the door from heavy blows. And this door did not disappoint. I have read since then that early medieval strapwork was more decorative than the later work that replaced it. I am guessing this door shows later work.
The abbey was quite square and Gothic-looking, and the thought occurred to me that it had been rebuilt in later generations. I later found out that the original spires were destroyed in the Hundred Years' War and replaced by rectangular parapets. The worn stone, dark and dingy, made me think of wars and the strife of life long ago. I was halted in time. It was the dark ages. I stood there expecting to see the Monty Python crew come around the corner shouting, “Bring out your dead!” and black death victims being tossed onto their cart. I hope that since my visit the town government has spruced up the outside of the abbey. I realize, in retrospect, that my head was full of fancies and falsehoods about medieval times. I would discover throughout my journey that the middle ages was a much brighter time than I knew. I trundled off to bed and slept soundly, happy that I had made it successfully to this next stop on my journey.
Journal exerpt, Tuesday morning, June 7, 2011 at Mercure Caen Hotel:
Listening to some Brits talk about WWII. There are many Americans here, too. I'm honored to be here among men and women who were there at a crisis point in history. They are talking about the leaky shower. I experienced this, too. They had trouble closing the door in there. I just had trouble shutting it off.
Memories are streaming out all around me, I am listening to the experiences related by these octogenarians. Nothing specific. I just catch a phrase or two. And what lively wit: One lady says of her husband, “He's not a happy bunny this morning!” Her husband, when he held out his hand to her as she left the table, mumbled something, which sounded like, “Causing trouble?” Her reply: “I'm not trouble! It's all these other people who are trouble!”
Again the croissants are a little dry here—although better than at Auxerre, they are definitively not as good as Paris and Les Grande Chenes! So odd to hear American music everywhere. Maybe some is British Pop, but definitely American Pop. R&B, Blues, Jazz, Alternative... So why don't these people—particularly the hotel employees—speak the language? :)
Maybe I am being paranoid by locking my computer up in the hotel safe when I am out and about, but that HP mini notebook is a lifeline for me. It's how I stay connected to my life back home. Where I am not a stranger.
Today at Falaise will be interesting. I've been reading about these castles and ruins for so long! I finally get to see them! However, I think I'll skip the Churche of the Hommes—William the First's chapel that he built for his sins in marrying his cousin, Matilda of Flanders. Matilda's sister chapel—actually abbey – was ugly in overall shape although in detail beautiful. Williams's will probably be much the same. I would go if it wasn't so far away. Okay. We'll see. This afternoon it is the Caen Chateau after I get back from Falaise-- maybe I won't stop for lunch and just snack on something I grab here—but then that puts me out looking for dinner in-between brasserie hours and restaurant hours. Hmm. Perhaps I can find a cafe or brasserie just in the nick. I don't want another grand dinner like last night or be up as late.
Okay. Now the dining room is playing country music! I think that I have now heard the entire American music oeuvre.
I was picked up at 9:30 Tuesday morning for my tour of Falaise Castle (Château de Falaise) by a Normandy native, Mrs. Anne Brard. She spoke little English, but she was very kind. She handed me a piece of paper immediately that included information about Falaise. Since I spoke little French, we communicated using a rudimentary sign language to get our meaning across, and it was kind of fun. I had been told that Anne was not a licensed guide, but a taxi. She could not legally give me a tour. But she could drive me to the site and drop me off. That was OK by me. The castle and fortress at Falaise, France lay about 26 miles southeast of Caen, so I must have a driver or rent another car (a little voice inside my head said “non!” to that). Hiring a taxi was the only way I was going to see it. And I wanted to see it. This was where William the Conqueror (or “Bill the Bastard” as he is known locally) was born--sort of. Historians say he was likely born at the home of his mother, Herleva, the daughter of a ducal chamberlain, in town rather than in the fortress itself. Falaise Castle is also the place where Matilda, Duchess of Normandy and wife of William the Conqueror, is thought to have embroidered, with the help of monks, the famous tapestry most of us know as the Bayeux Tapestry (what Anne called “Victoire de Hastings”). This idea is in dispute, however, as records show that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeaux (William's half brother) in southern England (probably Canterbury).
I enjoyed my tour of the castle and fortress at Falaise. Richard, Duke of Normandy and father to Bill the Bastard, built it on the site of an old fortress. The fortress keep was rebuilt with steel girders and glass and made into a museum in 1997. You can see deep into the keep and chasm below through the glass and stairways.
When first entering the keep, an audio and video recording begins based on a motion detecot to guide you through the palace at your own pace. There were some technical glitches, but I learned a few things and even saw a model of what a guarderobe looked like. The guarderobe at the castle at Poitiers plays an important role in my novel, so I took several pictures and tried to imagine what it was like to actually make use of such a facility in the 12th century.
Another room was designed to look like a typical small private audience hall that the queen might have used when she was in residence at Falaise. It was richly decorated with wall hangings and large wooden chairs and a long table. I walked up to the turrets and got a view of the town.
I then walked back out of the entrance way of the castle and explored the grounds. The walkway back down to the gift shop was at the same level as the remaining curtain walls on the east side of the fortress. Arrow loops or slits were cut into little turrets along the wall. Wow. The classic cross shape. They were bigger than the ones at Guédelon. The round ends of each line looked clean and straight, like they had been carved only a day ago. But time and nature had obviously taken over most of the ruin. I loved the way that rosy wildflowers dotted the base of the curtain wall on one side, softening the rough, rock strewn ground. A beautiful yellow flowering bush sprouted from a large boulder on the grounds.
After an hour and a half, I felt I had seen everything I needed to. So, I walked down the broad carriage way back to the spot where Anne had dropped me off. But my cultural adventure in Normandy was no where near finished, however...
Anne picked me up at noon as planned and she made it known that she would take the back roads back so that I could see some more of the Normandy countryside. I did not know how to refuse and was truely interested to see some of France that I would not see otherwise. I had nothing else scheduled that day. Anne drive us along windy, two-lane roads through countryside that reminded me of cape cod and other coastal areas of the U.S. I didn't see any ocean, but there were many rolling hills covered in brown and green and trees hugging up tight to the roadside.
What I wasn't expecting was that Anne was fluent communicator of road rage. A car ahead of us was going a little too slow for her, so she tailed him and honked. This went on for a while. I sat tensely in the passenger seat, not saying anything. The couple in the car ahead seemed to be taking their time, probably sight-seeing. Finally they pulled over and I was relieved. However, Anne was not through. She pulled alongside their car and used the control on the driver's side door to lower my window. Then she leaned across me and yelled at the driver of the other car. He and his companion ignored her. After what seemed like too long a time of Anne cursing in French, she withdrew to her side of the car and got back on the highway. I don't think I have to tell you, I was terrified. She drove too fast in my opinion, but otherwise she was a very capable driver. However, emotionally, not mature enough, even though she was in her late forties or early fifties.
Anne got me back to the hotel safely and came in with me. She gestured for me to follow her to the desk. She then told the clerk, in French, of an archaeological dig happeningin the new part of town. The clerk cheerfully translated for me. Apparently some new construction had unveiled a crypt or the foundation of an old building. It was very kind of Anne to alert me to this, and I appreciated it. But I was not sorry to say goodbye to this driver. Upon reading through my journal entry for that afternoon, I was surprised that I didn't even note the automobile adventure.
Journal excerpt, later Tuesday afternoon, June 7, 2011, Sitting at an outdoor cafe:
Back from Falaise, from the castle of William the Conqueror's birth. Mostly destroyed and rebuilt and re-envisioned by Bruno Decaris, Chief Architect of Historical Monuments with the sponsorship of the town of Falaise.. interesting. I agree with Lonely Planet—the audio visuals are a bit tricky if you are following on the heels of the folks in front of you. I've learned how to pronounce “Caen” and “Falaise” finally. I now think “cah” and “FahLayse.”
I have an empty stomach and I want to order, but I've lost my waiter. I feel I have to keep an eye out for him and order before I can focus on writing. The temp keeps changing. I was warm when the sun was out and now it is cold and no sun. But really pleasant. My body doesn't adjust normally to temperature so who knows how warm it really is.
Okay. The order is in. I hope. I didn't understand the question the server asked at the end: “Un cah?” I said, “Oui.” I hope it just meant a can—a can of cidre or cider. Learned how to say that at the castle. He gave me the menu back. That's good in case I want dessert. But I think I might want to get out to the chateau here in Caen before it gets too late.
Bill the Bastard as they call him here--his birth place is very eerie, like other medieval edifices, but the stone was more bland than, for example, the Abbaye les Dammes: a white stone. Was it sandstone or limestone? I think sandstone. I'd like to know my stone better. I'll talk to Darcy about it—my local geologist. The stairs were broader in some places than Guédelon, but the towers were still fairly narrow. (Editor's note: it was likely limestone, the same stone as used to build the abbey although it seemed grayer. Caen is home to Pierre de Caen, is a light creamy-yellow Jurassic limestone quarried. Many buildings were built from it, including buildings in 18th and 19th century England and the USA.)
I can see why Bill and the original builders of the keep or castle chose this site. You can see for miles and miles from the ramparts: the hills. The land rolls away down from the sandstone plateau on which it stands. It was a very dangerous life in the early middle ages. Always prepared to do battle with your neighbor—if you are a noble of course. Peasants and merchants had different problems.
Excellent cidre—labeled “CRU.” This trip is all so very weird, but things are starting to move now—now that I'm in Normandy. I feel I've been through some challenging events and survived, including driving a car. I still have to figure the train to Saumur. Ifeel like I'm interfering here by not knowing the language!
Several surprises met me on this leg of my journey: Discovering the many Brits and Americans visiting Normandy to see the World War II memorials and delighting in eavesdropping on conversations I could actually understand, experiencing Normandy road rage, getting the inside scoop on an active architectural dig (see next blog entry) and finding out about Normandy cidre. Boy they love apples in Normandy. Cider-making is a large production, starting with picking apples in the late fall, letting them sour, then smashing them to get out all their juices, separating the juices from the chapeau brun (“brown hat”) or the floating solid matter, and making a variety of different alcoholic beverages. I sampled cidre, which is slow-fermented for three months then bottled with yeast for a secondary fermentation. Result: bright, bubbly sweet and acidic. When I come back I'll have to try calvados (apple brandy) and pommeau, an aperitif made by combining unfermented apple juice with calvados. I think I got the best of the three styles, though.