Tuesday, September 16, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Two

I used to like camping. As a kid and in my 20s, I loved it. I loved how I could assemble a tent in five minutes: in 10 minutes, it would be ready for me to crawl into my sleeping back, comfortable and cozy.

In my 30s, my love for camping waned. I found it difficult to get a good-night's sleep, regardless of how thick the mattress or how warm the sleeping bag. Camping for one night—maybe two—was okay. For longer stays, I preferred the comfort of a proper bed.

By the time I reached my 40s, I no longer cared to camp. It wasn't a vacation, but something I had to endure, and I didn't do it well. I didn't sleep and would be grumpy all next day.

I'm close to 50 and I hate camping. It's torturous. No sleep and now my muscles ache.

But I agreed to camp for a week in France because I was promised that the facilities were clean and we would be right in towns. "You can wake up and walk to a café for a morning coffee and pain au chocolat," my wife promised me. Think of the savings, how we could put it toward great meals and fabulous bottles of wine.

The first night of camping was almost our last.

While the town of Honfleur was beautiful, full of history and amazing food, our camp ground was nothing special. The site itself was private, with perfectly groomed hedges partitioning each camp spot. Yet Camping du Phare lacked hot water in the washrooms (you also had to provide your own toilet paper and soap), all of the urinals were out of order, and the hand dryer was broken. The facilities were a little better than had we roughed it in the bush.

But the worst part of our stay were our neighbours. Three young Russians on the other side of our hedge partied all night, speaking loudly, laughing, and clinking bottles. I tried to shush them a couple of times, to no effect. The proprietors of the camp ground, it seemed, had no control or restriction over noise.

By about 4:00, I was struck by a migraine and rushed to get my meds down. Luckily, they worked but the noise didn't help. By 5:15, the noise next door simmered down.

"Thank God," Lori said.

"When we get up, in a couple of hours, I'm letting the girls make as much noise as they want," I said.

"Definitely," said Lori.

The bastards were up before us. I must have only been asleep for a little more than an hour when we heard the familiar voices.

The Russians packed up and were gone by seven.

While I packed up our site, Lori and the girls wandered into town to find a boulangerie-patisserie. By the time I had the sleeping bags and mattresses stuffed in the trunk, they returned with hot coffee (it was hard to find a shop that had coffee to go, they said) and fresh chocolate-filled croissants. We enjoyed them with breakfast cereal, and in less than an hour, we said adieu to Honfleur.

It was a dull Sunday, with intermittent rain and cool temperatures. A somber day, which seemed to match our first destination: Juno Beach.

The D-Day invasion of Normandy beaches is one of the bloodiest events of the twentieth century, with heavy casualties on both sides. And while some of the heaviest fighting and the heaviest losses happened where the Americans and British forces landed, the Canadians played a key role in changing the course of the war.

Growing up, I was fascinated by the Second World War. And finally coming to see where it all happened was something that meant a lot to me. To stand next to a German pillbox and look out into the English Channel, to imagine seeing the countless ships and hearing the roar of planes overhead, to hear the canon fire and know that they were all coming for you. To imagine the young Canadian men, stepping off those boats, storming the beach with nowhere to go for shelter.

We are fortunate to never have witnessed what these men experienced on that day. And we owe them for that privilege of not having to experience it. It's because of these brave men that my children were able to run and play on that very beach.

We took the time to reflect, to visit the monuments and read the names of the Canadian soldiers who died on that beach, to read the names of more who had fought and continued after the battle but who were remembered just as importantly. I promised a friend that I would find her grandfather's name plate, and I did so.

Thankfully, the rain held off for most of our visit, did not hasten our departure.

I'm a history buff, and I particularly love Medieval history. And so, being in Normandy I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see one of the greatest artifacts of that region, the Bayeux Tapestry.

I studied William's conquest of England in university and always wanted to see the tapestry for myself, but never imagined actually seeing it. At the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, the 70-metre cloth is laid out along a wall in a dark hallway. As you enter the hallway, you are provided with an audio guide that activates automatically after you pass through the doorway. Following the guide, you walk slowly down the length of the tapestry, and the whole story is told to you in vivid detail. In 20 minutes, you have observed every part of the tapestry and have the whole story told to you.

I was in heaven.

While photography is forbidden in the museum, I did manage to sneak one shot of a Norman horseman. Seeing him and seeing the weave, the detail of the tapestry is outstanding. It's amazing that this fabric has lasted so long.

The tapestry isn't the only thing in Bayeux worth seeing. The town itself is quaint, there is evidence of gratitude for the town's liberation during the allied forces invasion, and the cathedral is spectacular.

From Bayeux, we continued west, moving from Normandy into Brittany. Our goal was to drive to St-Malo, to find a camp site before it became too late (mind you, with the rain falling off and on and the kids calling for us to find an inn, I was tempted to slow down and lose any available sites).

As we approached the region, Lori called ahead to a camp ground she found, but it was already booked solid for the night. As we reached St-Malo, it seemed like we might have to find lodging, but I spied a sign for a camp ground, called Alet, and we followed the road up a hill that overlooked the St-Malo harbour.

At the camp site, Lori begged me to go in to the office to enquire about available sites. I took one of our daughters, just in case my French wasn't good enough and I needed a bilingual translator.

The young man behind the desk spoke perfect English, and as soon as he heard my awful accent, he spoke to me in my mother tongue. Yes, there were a few sites available. When I asked for a quiet spot, he smiled and said, "All of our sites are quiet. We have a strict rule."

I liked this guy. He said all the right things.

While the sites were unsheltered, we were on high ground. The facilities were clean, everything worked, and the water was hot. But the best part of the camp site was the view. From our spot, we looked down the hill toward a small castle. Looking up, we saw a stone wall with an archway, and once Lori and I had set up camp and the girls went to the site's park, where they took advantage of the swings, we took a walk through the arch.

And stepped back in time.

Tomorrow, for Wordless Wednesday, I'll show you what we found.

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