Thursday, December 1, 2011

Verneuil sur Avre, day three

D-Day. Well, sort of. This was the day that Myles was going to see Omaha Beach if he had to drive through the bocage tank-like. But it didn't, in the end, need to be that dramatic. And since it was vaguely in the same direction, we decided to drive to Mont Saint Michel first, and then drive to Omaha Beach. So far, so good.
We dragged the troops out of bed relatively early but still struggled to get on the road before nine thirty (as before ... how will I ever go to work? I am beginning to have doubts that one can feed a family adequately and go to work. Or clean the house and go to work. Hmmm). And discovered that Mont Saint Michel was three hours away. 'How much do you really want to see this?' asked Myles with a furrow in his brow. 'Well, very much ...'
Again, through the Normandy countryside. Again lovely and peppered with animals feasting on green grass, fattening themselves up for further feasting. We tried to listen to Disco music which didn't quite work. So then I discovered a station called Nostalgie which plays a variety of music that includes Serge Gainboroughesque French songs that appears to be about love and the seaside and are sung by French versions of Dean Martin or Astrid Gilberto, and eighties songs from the English speaking world like Billie Jean and Mamma Mia. It was a happy time.
Mont Saint Michel suddenly drifted up through our car windows as we were driving through some more green grazing land. It is very other worldy, like a dreamy kind of mythical castle that appears and disappears on the tides of the clouds. And that feeling doesn't appear to disperse as you come closer. If anything, it becomes more strange and compelling.
We parked. We were assured that our car would not be washed away today. And then in we went. It is like a village at the bottom with houses and shops in tiny laneways. Zelda beamed at me and said 'It's just like the Tower of London, only chipper.' Indeed. Lots of shops selling striped tops, and then lots of restaurants claiming to be Mere Poulard. I think, from terrible memory, that Mere Poulard was famous for her omelette sometime in the early part of the twentieth century. Elizabeth David writes about her. Omelettes, happily, were on the menu, though we didn't stop to eat. Up and up we climbed through the street, and at every turn, as gaps between the buildings opened, the landscape below us become more and more alien and remote. We were above it all - and sailing into the sunset with a thousand Japanese tourists, some stylish French tourists and a rather portly English couple who buddied up with us at one point.
To go into the Abbey, which is at the top of the mountain, you pay a fee. But, rather wonderfully, children are free (in the interests of education??). And the notion of a child here was someone under 18. This is not the case in most places. And it is very hard to argue that Paris is under 12. As much as we would like to.
And again you climb, up stairs and through alleyways. And again, you suddenly find yourself in a small square with the whole of Normandy spread out on one side and the Channel on the other.
Into the church we went. I have had to ration churches because of frank rebellion from some of the children, but even they had to gasp at this one. Soaring into the sky, and as it is in the sky anyway, it is a marvel. Niccolo was swinging something around and threatening to cartwheel. I had to explain that this was a sacred space to some and he needed to respect that. After that, he took the whole thing very seriously (as he will when you give him those kinds of directions). We then walked into the cloister where the monks circled in endless (or bottomless?) contemplation. This cloiser is walled and has a garden in the middle, but one wall opens to the sea (at what feels like about a mile elevation). It has glass, but I'm not sure this was always the case. Apparently this was an unfinished part of the abbey. It was rather unsettling. Into the refectory where they ate, and then downstairs into the reception rooms for royalty. This room was huge and contained two enormous fireplaces that you could walk right into, and see out of the chimmney. We all liked this very much. There was some restoration working going on, one man who was up on a scaffold literally cutting a piece of stone by hand.
Then through a labyrinth of rooms, some with huge columns to hold up the church above, some old ossaries (with no bones), some chapels, and then covered staircases that seemed to go nowhere but would suddenly open into another room.
We exited into the historical gift shop (everyone's favourite part of any tour). Niccolo painstakingly surveyed the shelves, finally deciding on a castle that is made from paper (that is; you put it together yourself). Zelda chose a notebook that closed with a jewel. I bought a book about winter in Mont Saint Michel.
We went back into the little laneways with the intention of eating, but found ourselves back on the causeway with no food in our bellies. I wanted to walk on what looked like sandbanks that reached out from the back of Mont Saint Michel, but it turned out to be mud, and you couldn't do it anyway. Some school children were trying, but it looked like it might not end well.
We settled for a drive back into the town and eating baguettes.
We programed Sam for Omaha and off we went.
The day was incredibly clear and sunny (I haven't mentioned this yet, but it was like the clearest autumn day ever), but cold. Perfect to wander along Omaha Beach, saturated in history and blood but remarkably domestic and beautiful; the kind of beach you would want to come back to on a hot day and spend digging sand castles and swimming. For Myles, this place was moving and important. (A bit like me and my trenches - enough already.) The kids just ran about in the water and got very cold.
As it approached five o'clock and the sun was disappearing (and the temperature was dropping) we drove to the American cemetary. It was about to close, but we were able to walk around for about twenty minutes. The white, marble crosses stretched out as far as your eye can see are confronting, and they sit above another beach equally as glorious as Omaha.
Then American soldiers who man the place came out to chivvy us along and get us back into our car. Well, it was almost dark by this time.
The long drive home. It was long, we didn't return to Verneuil sur Avre until eight at night. But although exhausted, we were all pretty chuffed.

Oh, and on a food note. There were signs at Mont Saint Michel about pre-sale lamb. I seem to remember this from Elizabeth David, something about the salt content in the grass in Normandy which makes for particular lamb. I wish we had stopped to eat it. I wish I could remember what it was exactlly. Perhaps some one could enlighten me.

1 comment:

  1. Loving your journey, Annelise.
    The Pre-sale lamb grazes on salt-flats around Mont St Michel. I'm on an Aussie saltbush-fed lamb thing at the moment and I expect it has similar characteristics. Get hold of a Bresse chook if you can.