We are back with Geneviève again with a roof over our heads for a night or two.
This morning we walked into Domfront which is a pretty little mediaeval town built on the summit of a hill and dominated by the ruins of an old castle destroyed in 1608 on the orders of Sully. It has since become a romantic ruin set in a peaceful park filled with flowers. From the ramparts there are extensive views over the surrounding countryside. The main street is filled with terraces of cottages in granite and schist interspersed with other, wooden framed, pain-de-bois properties. Behind the façade are several little courtyards surrounded by more imposing residences.
Completely out of keeping, right in the very centre of the town stands France's first reinforced concrete church constructed in1929 to replace one which was smaller, and most probably far more beautiful. The spire was swathed in green netting and when we tried to look inside the church we found a notice stating that it was closed on grounds of security. We later saw the headlines for the newspaper Ouest France and it seems the iron bars within the cement are corroding and the building is unsafe!
We drove on to the spa town of Bagnoles-de-l'Orne, the only spa in this part of France. It is a very pretty little town filled with smart hotels, beautiful, flower-filled parks, a lake, a chateau, a woodland walk to a viewpoint overlooking the river valley, and of course the spa itself. It is reputed to be good for rheumatic problems. It all seemed very quiet however and the busiest place at lunchtime was the spa restaurant which was packed full with people who looked as if they had seen younger and healthier days. Bagnole in French is a term applied to an old, clapped-out car. The spa is there to deal with old, clapped out humans.
Legend has it that the spa was discovered when the king and his horse had both grown old together. Rather than have his horse destroyed, the king turned it loose in a deep, wooded valley to fend for itself. Imagine his surprise when it returned to its stable a few days later as young and fit as it had been at the start of their adventures together! The king investigated the valley, found the spring and was soon as rejuvenated as his horse! Word of the miracle spread and the king established the spa so everyone could benefit from its health-giving properties. We drank some of the water but cannot say it has rejuvenated us quite yet.
On the outskirts of the nearby town of La Ferté-Macé we stopped for a very nice hot lunch at the Leclerc supermarket. Their restaurants are excellent value and make a convenient change when camping. Apart from another rather strange, modern church in the town centre we found little to detain us in the town so continued to Carrouges. Here we discovered a beautiful stone and brick castle with a wonderful cruet-set gatehouse with its two, round, pepperpot towers with their high slate roofs. The castle is set within a moat and has pretty, if rather overgrown, formal gardens. The castle courtyard and several ground floor rooms could be freely explored but the interior of most of the castle was only accessible as a guided tour which we had missed. Instead we explored the rose gardens and fed our stale bread to the truly enormous fish swimming in the moat.
We'd rung Geneviève earlier to ask if it would be okay to return today as we were not far away. So from Carrouges we headed towards Caen, stopping on the way to visit the ramparts and courtyard of the castle at Falaise where William the Conqueror was born. There is a flamboyant equestrian statue of him in the main town square, just in front of the castle. He was known in France as William the Bastard. His father living in the castle looked down to the river flowing below the battlements and fell in love with a young girl washing linen in the river. He sent for her to live at the castle and she became the mother of the future king of England in 1027. Falaise seemed a busy and interesting town but as it was nearly 7pm we needed to hasten our way towards Caen.
When we arrived we were greeted eagerly by the neighbour's cat Confetti who seemed rather pleased to see us back. Geneviève says she has had to lock our bedroom door as he has been very determined in trying to keep our bed warm while we have been gone. This evening he seemed equally determined to become a camping cat and take up residence in Modestine.
Saturday 14th July 2006, Caen
Yesterday was Ian's birthday and the sun shone all day. Ian celebrated it by losing a filling and paying an emergency visit to Geneviève's dentist who was available at short notice, carried out the repair and charged a mere 29 euros (£20), which is almost certainly less than he would have paid back in England.
We were sent down to the Friday market to browse the food and vegetable stalls, returning with a basket filled with tomatoes, fresh parsley, peppers, courgettes and a selection of Normandy cheeses for a supper party. We felt very much in holiday mood as we enjoyed a beer on a nearby terrace watching the market activities.
As we returned home we called off to visit our late friend Alain, Geneviève's husband, who lies in the cemetery near the house. He was also a specialist librarian – responsible for the local history collections of the Départment of Calvados, Ian being his counterpart in Devon. Alain was responsible for several noted works on the history of the book in Normandy. Ian and Alain worked together on an exhibition of Napoleonic caricatures which was shown in Caen in 1985. Had he still been alive it is very likely they would have collaborated together on a publication in their retirement. Their friendship has enriched the lives of both their families and we have been visiting each other's homes for over 20 years, enabling our children to have an early understanding into each other's language and culture.
During the evening we spoke to Neil and Jeev, and Ian was overjoyed to hear over the telephone a recording of the heartbeat of our future grandchild. It was a very moving experience and amazing to receive such a birthday present from a baby yet to be born!
We ate a celebratory supper outside in the warmth of the evening. It is well after 10pm before darkness falls here. During the night the rain returned.
Today, Saturday, is Bastille day and we are here in Caen to celebrate with fireworks tonight. The local marches and military parades that have always been part of the French way of celebrating Bastille Day have been extended, since the election of Nicholas Sarkozi, with a huge display of European power in Paris. All the countries of the EU have sent troops, armed to the teeth with guns, swords and bayonets. On the television all of France watches as they march in perfect formation past Sarkozi who is standing, taking the salute with tear-filled eyes and a trembling lip. His power as the new president of France has been demonstrated in this massive spectacle. It has been rather a shock to watch it! It's the nearest we've seen to the parades of Russia and the Eastern block. Bastille Day is something for France alone and the rest of Europe should not become involved in this display of military bravado.
When Jill was six she spent Bastille night in Paris with her parents. Then there was dancing and music outside the Bastille and a passing Frenchman swept me up and danced all around the square with me. I have always remembered the joy and fun of that night and expected in vain to find something of that atmosphere today.
This morning the three of us drove to Port-en-Bessin, passing through Arromanches where the remains of the portable Mulberry harbour can still be seen in the bay. The massive concrete caissons were floated secretly from Britain to provide an incredibly effective emergency harbour to enable troops to land on the beaches on D-day, 6th June 1944. All along this area of the coast there is evidence of where the British and Canadian forces landed. There are small, carefully tended war grave cemeteries scattered throughout the countryside and of course along the cliff tops there are huge German block houses, gun turrets and trenches. Slightly further north at the Point du Hoc the cliffs have been left as they were, filled with craters much as at Verdun, where off-shore Allied forces bombarded the German defences in their attempt to land.
Port-en-Bessin is an active fishing village. Today being a national holiday the quayside was lined with fishing boats and everywhere was busy with visitors enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We climbed up onto the cliffs and followed the footpath as it wound between the overgrown remains of trenches and bunkers with views over the water towards Arromanches. During the afternoon we visited a vide grenier in a nearby village. As usual the village was packed tight with cars. The French love a bargain as much as the British and the stalls were being enthusiastically turned over by bargain hunters. Generally it is unbelievable the rubbish people hope to sell in France and the prices are generally quite high. Typical was the moth-eaten stuffed fox with a bird in its mouth – a synch for four euros! Would anyone really want it on the sideboard? Or for two euros we could have bought a recycled marble plaque which could have been absolutely perfect for the right person. It read in French "Thanks to Our Lady of Lourdes for the miracle achieved 18th February 1945." On the back was an earlier message paying tribute to a lady who had died several decades earlier. We were also tempted by a couple of tea plates in memory of someone's first communion being sold as a bargain offer with a pair of frog flippers!
Back home in the evening Ian set the barbeque going, Chantal arrived from Bayeux with her two adopted Vietnamese daughters and we spent a happy couple of hours cooking and eating sausages with salad, our cheeses from the market yesterday and an apricot tart made by Chantal and the girls. Around 10.30pm, as dusk fell, we made our way down to the Prairie, a vast, open space near Caen city centre where the French equine sport of trotting usually takes place. Around the perimeter crowds were gathered and once darkness fell the fireworks began with the sound of rockets and bangers echoing over the city. It did cross Jill's mind that for some elderly people it must bring back memories each year of the bombardment of 1944, but this time it was fairly harmless and certainly very colourful. French safety rules are nowhere near as strict as in England and in the crowds around us people were setting off fire crackers which shot off in all directions with loud bangs and crackles. On the walk back home, as we passed the entrance to a subway, someone threw a giant banger down the stairs and it exploded right beside us. Our ears were still ringing when we reached home!
Monday 16th July 2007, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Near Amboise, Loire Valley
Last Sunday we visited an exhibition at the Institut Mémoires de l'Edition Contemporaine in the Abbaye d'Ardenne, on the edge of the Caen. It covered the history of travel literature, based mainly on the archive's collection of travel guides produced by the French publisher Hachette. They covered 19th century phrase books and travel guides that were the forerunners of the Guides Bleu that are still produced today. While cataloguing the library of that indefatigable writer and traveller Sabine Baring-Gould at Lew Trenchard recently we found many Guides Joanne. It was interesting therefore, to see how they fitted into the long history of the publication of guidebooks by Hachette. These had started in the 1850s by supplying reading matter for railway travellers to be sold at the chain of kiosks set up on railway stations across France. Later the firm adapted to produce guides for motorists with maps of gradients and even photographs of road junctions to make up for the lack of signposts – a sort of early GIS! We were amused by a plea from the company not to purchase guides by Baedeker as it would only put money in the pockets of Germany.
In the evening, the weather being perfect, we had a supper party in the garden with Geneviève's brother Yves and his partner Christine, and Marie Françoise, a former work colleague of Alain at the library. Over the years she has also become a good personal friend to Geneviève and to us.