Despite what many Americans may think, Normandy is about more than just the D-Day landing beaches. There is a lot of history in this area, a lot of gorgeous architecture and A LOT of beautiful scenery. Arriving on the train from Paris gave us a 2+ hour view out the windows towards the fields of bright yellow flowers or cows. The flowering plants, rapeseed, are harvested for the production of canola oil. You probably already know what happens with the cows.
Our temporary home for the weekend was made in Bayeux. This small city was founded as far back as the 1st century BC. The city saw much turmoil throughout the Viking raids of the 9th century and Hundred Years’ War, finally resolved in 1453. However, it was completely spared from destruction during World War II, a significant feat due to its proximity to the coast (7 kilometers). Germans took the town in 1940 but Bayeux was the first town in Normandy to be liberated, a mere one day after D-Day, on June 7, 1944.
It is quite evident that the economy of Bayeux depends on tourism to the nearby WWII sites. English is spoken adequately and widely. Tours depart from everywhere headed towards the coast. New hotels, grocery stores, and car-rental agencies are popping up throughout town. And yet there is still a peaceful historic feel to the city center. Crowning the center is a fantastic Norman-Romanesque and Gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame de Bayeux. Consecrated in 1077 in the presence of William the Conquerer, Duke of Normandy and King of England, the church was the original home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Structurally the church is Romanesque, but the spires and facade were later appended with Gothic features. A brief walk through the cathedral’s crypt, just under the altar, shows where cathedral relics were once housed.
Although Normandy makes for a doable day trip from Paris (I would not recommend this strategy), it is much better served for at least a weekend or more if you have the time. Beach resorts dot the northern coast and offer respite for busy Parisians in the summer. Dairy farms and apple orchards line narrow country roads. Normandy produces a wide range of dairy products including some of the best cheeses in France. Their various apple products, such as calvados (apple brandy) and fermented cider, can be a splendid accompaniment as well. There is, however, one historic attraction that stands alone, above all others in Normandy (literally and figuratively): Mont St. Michel.
This small rocky island is located about a kilometer from the northern coast. It has served as a fortress since ancient times and since the 8th century has been the seat of the monastery dedicated to Saint Michael. Before the construction of the monastery, the island was called Mont Tombe. The island and monastery have long been a popular pilgrimage sight for Catholics. In fact, even in the middle ages, a thriving economy was present on the mountain with shops and restaurants catering to visitors. Nowadays, it is still considered the third most important pilgrimage site in Christendom, after Israel and Vatican City.
I’m not sure how many of the current visitors could be considered pilgrims, but there sure are lots to choose from. It is estimated that over 3 million people visit the island every year. That is a pretty lofty number to walk through the tiny passageways and backyards of all 47 current inhabitants. Original pilgrims had to brave the rapidly-changing tides in order to make it onto the island. The tides vary roughly 14 meters between high and low. In 1878, a causeway was built to allow pilgrims to come and go regardless of tide, drastically increasing the amount of visitors. However, this caused much of the bay to silt up and as a result, Mont St. Michel is no longer an island. Conspicuous construction equipment makes for an eyesore as you approach the island, but it is all part of an ambitious project to restore the island to its original form. Traffic across the causeway was closed last year. Now, the only access is by shuttles from the mainland. A proper bridge that will allow water to flow underneath is being constructed and the causeway will subsequently be demolished. I might have to re-visit Mont St. Michel once this project is completed. Seeing a mountainous island in the middle of sand is much less impressive than in the middle of water.
Inside the fortress walls of Mont St. Michel, you will find an abundance of every tacky tourist shop ever known to man. We found this to be distracting to the overall serenity of the monastery and location, but it’s understandable that where a buck is to be made, it will be made. Following advice from our van driver from Bayeux, we took an alternative route up the island and avoided much of the tourist commotion. Either way you go, there are a lot of steps and elevation changes. Quite surprisingly, we saw an abundance of strollers, which don’t seem to be very practical on Mont St. Michel.
Upon leaving Mont St. Michel on our return to Bayeux and subsequently Paris, the van driver, François, took a short detour to show us fields of sheep grazing with the mountain in the background. These fields flood 4 times a year with sea water and leave the ground saturated with salt and other minerals. Consequently, the sheep have a distinct flavor and are served at local restaurants as agneau de pré-salé (salt meadow lamb). Another local specialty to Mont St. Michel are the omelettes, which used to make for a quick meal so that pilgrims could beat the tides back to mainland. Restaurant La Mère Poulard is the original home to these famous omelettes, but every restaurant will serve their own version.
With all there is to see and do in Normandy, one weekend is certainly not enough time. But if you only have one weekend, do not let that stop you from visiting my favorite part of France so far…besides Paris bien sûr!