Normandy

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Normandy

Though today it is a peaceful land of fishing villages, apple orchards and rolling green meadows, Normandy has over the years been the theater for some of Europe's most vicious battles. In 1066, William the Conqueror launched his successful attack on England from its shores. Its fields were then bloodied during the ensuing Hundred Years' War, which saw Joan of Arc burnt in the capital city of Rouen. In 1944 the Allies, coveting the valuable ports at Dieppe and Le Havre, launched one of the most historic battles in history on what came to be known as "D-Day". Today, peace reigns in the region, and if you get off the beaten path, you are likely to see an old Norman farmer herding cows across an impossibly green pasture. Honfleur, though touristy, is a jewel of a town with quaint stone buildings and a perfectly square harbor dating back to the days of Louis XIII. Deauville, boasting one of the region's longest, widest and sandiest beaches along with a chic racetrack, attracts the horsy set and their entourages.

Normandy retains close ties with England. The Normans were of Viking origin — a warlike people who quarreled among themselves and launched out on invasions by sea, even establishing a kingdom on the island of Sicily and sailing as far west as America and as far east as Russia. The greatest Norman invasion of all was across the English Channel in 1066. At that time, England was inhabited by Anglo-Saxons, whom the Norman Duke William (the Conqueror) defeated in battle and made his permanent subjects. The English royal family is descended from this Norman duke. It is thanks to the influence of his French-speaking court that the English language is as much a "Romance" (Latin-derived) as a Germanic tongue.

The Norman people may have been warlike, but their land was the opposite. Richly endowed with scenic delights: soft Norman countryside, chalk cliffs (the most famous being in Etretat, matching the Dover cliffs), and a mild climate. It boasts fertile soil and predictable rainfall — hence, Normandy is a farmer's paradise. Its pastureland and orchards produce the best cheese, milk, and apples in France. The climate is mild enough for figs and magnolia blossoms! The raising of thoroughbred horses is another specialty. The sea has carved out lovely pocket-beaches which are popular for summer bathing, at which are experienced gigantic tides, sometimes reaching 20 or 30 feet — among the highest in the world. Seaports have kept Normandy in contact with the rest of Europe, including the Mediterranean. They have also provided prosperity for Norman nobles, and later for its middle class.

Wealthy, energetic, and known for long-range planning, the Normans covered their province with stone buildings — cathedrals, abbeys, country churches, manor houses, and castles. Stone was plentiful; think of the miles of chalky cliffs. That's limestone! Normans were methodical; they built to last, and many of their cathedrals have truly lasted. Since Norman churches are made of stone from local quarries, they blend into the color and texture of the landscape. So prolific was Norman building, that the style spread to other parts of Europe, especially (after the conquest) England. The earliest versions of the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, and many other buildings were built by Normans, and many of them were made of Norman limestone — fine-grained, permitting sharp lines. This stone was used in Westminster Abbey.

Back in Normandy, great Gothic cathedrals arose, century after century. They became increasingly refined, as tastes developed. Some buildings were damaged during the bloody Hundred Years war (when Norman towns were passed back and forth between the foes). Later, during the French Renaissance, ornate sculptured facades were added, standing intact into modern times. The most damage occurred during the Normandy invasion of 1944, when fighting raged around the towns. The loveliest cathedrals were spared, thankfully, and those damaged were later repaired.

D-Day Beaches  From east to west they stretch some 40-50 miles, and are known geographically as the Côte de Nacre (Mother of Pearl Coast). On June 6, 1944, an Allied armada of over 4,000 ships, preceded by airborne units parachuted behind the lines, launched the assault on Hitler's "impregnable" Atlantic Wall.

The tales of danger, heroism, and sacrifice have become a permanent part of American folklore, from the disastrous U.S. parachute landing at St. Pere-Eglise to soldiers scaling up the cliffs at Utah beach.

Arromanches-les-Bains: Formerly a little fishing port and seaside resort, it rose to fame in 1944. Beginning on June 6, the Allies constructed a huge artificial port as large as Le Havre, known as "Port Winston" (after Churchill). The beach itself was code-named "Gold Beach," and was the British landing zone. More than one million troops with equipment could be disembarked here. The remains of the port, still in the water, give an idea of the size of the operation. The museum here is full of scale models of the port and the landings, with samples of war gear, uniforms, guns, and a little theater where films are shown free to visitors.

Omaha Beach: This was the American sector of the landing, and a huge cemetery contains the bodies of 9,385 American fallen (the third largest American cemetery in France). Huge maps of the landings are engraved in stone on large tablets. The cemetery extends right up to the beach, and you can look out on the exact point where the first soldiers came ashore. The Allies lost about 50% of their men in this first landing, but they managed to occupy three villages (Colleville, St. Laurent, and Vierville) by the evening of the 6th. The villagers could not have been pleased to be singled out for this Armageddon, yet they must have been exhilarated too by such instant worldwide fame. Throngs of visitors stream through the area even today, many of them to mourn lost relatives.

Chronology of World War II
March 15, 1939 Germany invades Czechoslovakia
September 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland
December 12, 1939 French-English treaty
May 10, 1940 Germany attacks Flanders (Belgium)
May 28 1940 Another French-English treaty
May 28 - June 3, 1940 Battle of Dunkerque
June 10, 1940 Italy declares war on France
June 14, 1940 Germans enter Paris
June 17, 1940 Maréchal Pétain in charge in France, collaborating with Germany.
June 18, 1940 General de Gaulle's appeal to the French
June 22, 1940 Armistice signed with Germany
June 28, 1940 England accepts de Gaulle as head of the Free French Forces (F.F.L.)
July 11, 1940 Maréchal Pétain becomes Head of State in France
August 2, 1940 General de Gaulle condemned to death by French government, in absentia
September 23, 1941 Founding of the Comité National Français (C.N.F.) at London
August 19, 1942 Failed landing at Dieppe by Canadian forces
November 11, 1942 "Free" France is occupied by the Germans
June 3, 1943 Comité Français de la Libération Nationale (CFLN) is founded
November 9, 1943 de Gaulle is president of CFLN
January 1944 Large-scale German expedition against the underground movements
June 6, 1944 Landing of Allied Forces in Normandy (D-Day)
June 7, 1944 Bayeux taken undamaged by Allied Forces
June 27, 1944 Cherbourg liberated
July 7 & 8, 1944 Meeting of de Gaulle with Roosevelt
July 9, 1944 Caen taken by Allied Forces
August 24, 1944 Paris is liberated
August 26, 1944 de Gaulle descends the Champs-Elysees in triumph
May 7, 1945 German troops capitulate at Reims
May 8, 1945 Complete unconditional surrender of Germany

Caen  Caen is located on the River Orne, which made it a busy trading center from the outset. It was the favorite residence of Guillaume le Batard (William the Bastard), Duke of Normandy, who became William the Conqueror after 1066. William had a castle built at Caen; on its foundations, centuries later, a new castle was built which still stands. William and his wife Mathilde founded two abbeys (Trinity and St. Etienne) that also stand. William governed England from Caen.

After William's death at Rouen in 1087, his bones were brought to Caen to be entombed in his abbey. But in the 16th century, the French Protestants destroyed his tomb and scattered the bones. Only a thigh bone was saved, and placed in a new tomb with much ceremony. This too was pillaged during the French Revolution, so nothing but the building itself remains of the greatest of Normandy's dukes.

Rouen  This town overflows with monuments, medieval streets and churches, in particular the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, which was frequently painted by Monet. Once a Celtic trading post, a Roman garrison and a Viking colony, Rouen became the capital of the Norman Duchy in 911. In 1419, during the Hundred Years' War, Henry V captured Rouen during a siege. It was here that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in place du vieux-marché in 1431.

Bayeux  In the 9th century, a Viking chieftain named Rollo landed at Bayeux, married the daughter of the governor, and raised a son named William Longsword (who was to be an ancestor of William the Conqueror). This makes Bayeux the birthplace of the Norman dynasty and of the English royal house as well.

The pride of Normandy is an immensely long band of linen, embroidered with colored wool and measuring 231 feet by 20 inches. It depicts the Norman invasion of England (1066) in vivid, rare detail. Tradition attributes the work to William's wife Mathilda (it's still called the "tapestry of Queen Mathilda"), but historians know that it was actually made by skilled Saxon embroiderers in England. It's not really a "tapestry" but a scroll. Fifty-eight individual scenes record the political struggles that led up to the invasion, William's preparations, the occurrence of a huge comet that lit up half the sky (which William took as a good omen), the crossing of the Channel, and the Battle of Hastings itself, which saw William's victory and the death of the Saxon King Harold. Latin captions are stitched into the linen with the pictures, along with mythical animals and other ornaments.

This work provides us with the most detailed information we have about everyday life in early medieval Europe: what the people looked like, what they wore, the impressions created by the 700 ships of William's' Channel fleet, how his soldiers fought, and how they camped for the night. The pictures develop as a single, continuous story, and the tape recording (in English) that you hear provides a fascinating narrative. There are 626 persons shown, with 190 horses, 35 dogs, 506 other animals, 37 ships, and 33 buildings.

Mont-St-Michel  Mont-St-Michel's origin goes back to the beginning of the 8th century when the Archangel Michael appeared before Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, who founded an oratory on the island, then known as Mount Tombe. This was replaced on what had been renamed Mont-St-Michel, first by a Carolingian Abbey and then, until the 16th century by a series of Romanesque and Gothic churches, each more splendid than its predecessor. The abbey was fortified, but never captured.

The construction is a masterpiece of skill; granite blocks had to be brought from either the Chausey Islands or Brittany and hauled up to the site which at its crest was so narrow that supports had to be built up from the rocks below. There was, of course, no road then. The Island, being surrounded by shifting sands, was a dangerous undertaking to cross. Victor Hugo has written a most moving novel about a man who left the island too late to get to the mainland and was caught in the quicksands, drowning in the sand.

In fact, the quicksands continue to be a danger, which is why you shouldn't venture off the roads. Another danger is the tide rolling in, especially during the "spring tide." The word "spring" has nothing to do with the season. It refers to the way the tide "springs" on you unaware at the time of the year when the sun and moon are both pulling in the same direction. At this time, tradition has it that the tide races in at the speed of a galloping horse — an awesome sight to behold. At low tide, the water retreats a full 10 miles out to sea.

Synchronize your watches  Local time is 6 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 2:00pm in New York City, it's 8:00pm locally. Please note that France changes to and from daylight-saving time a few weeks before the U.S., so time differences still vary in March and October.

Money, money, money  The French unit of currency is the Euro. As throughout Europe, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money in the local currency whenever you need it. You will never have a problem locating a suitable ATM machine. If you do need to change dollars (cash or traveler's checks) into euros, try to do so at a bank. You can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks and you should always keep your passport handy. Bureaux de Change tend to give a slightly worse deal. Some shops, especially touristic ones, will accept American currency or traveler's checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a worse rate than you would from a bank. The same goes for hotels that are willing to change money for you, and even if they will do it, it's usually cash only, not traveler's checks. Bank opening hours are 9am to 12pm and 2pm to 6pm Tuesday through Saturday. They are often closed on Mondays. Opening hours can be more limited in smaller towns.

The joy of servitude  Restaurant checks always include a service charge, but it's still customary to leave a few additional euros or cents behind in a café and an additional 5% of the total bill in other restaurants. In the fancier restaurants, which pride themselves on their service, an additional tip of 5% to 10% is correct.

The mailman cometh  Mail service to and from France is reliable and inexpensive. However it is not cheap to send parcels overseas. You can purchase postage stamps (timbres) singly or in carnets of ten in post offices and tabacs. Post offices are usually open from 9am-5pm Monday through Friday and 9am-12pm on Saturdays. In larger towns, the main post office may remain open on weekdays from 8am to 7pm.

Please wait while we try to connect you  As usual, the golden rule is never to call home from your hotel. It will cost a fortune. Public telephones are easy to find and easy to use. They accept French telephone cards, sold in either 50 or 120 units, and can be bought at post offices, tabacs and some newsagents.

The number you need to get through to an AT&T operator from France is 08 00 99 00 11. For MCI it is 0800 99 0019.

Food and Shopping  Fish and shellfish are a main food source, due to the vast 300 miles of coastline. Lamb graze on the salt marshes, so their blood has a very high salt content. This, in turn, makes the lamb served in this part of Normandy salty, and it's a flavor prized by local people and visitors alike. Dairy counters overflow with locally made cheeses, such as Camembert and Pont l'Evêque as well as butter from Isigny and Gournay, which is carved out of huge blocks.

Sparkling alcoholic and nonalcoholic cider is the local drink. Calvados, the famous apple brandy, which is traditionally consumed between courses, is made from the apples that thrive in this region. Favorite desserts of the area include apple turnovers, butter brioches, puff-pastry galettes with jam, custards, fruit tarts, sweet pancakes, custards and a regional candy called Caramels d'Isigny.

Stores are generally open Mon-Sat 9am or 9:30am to 7pm or 7:30pm, although some close Monday mornings. Most stores close for two hours during lunch, beginning at noon.

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