War history springs to life in splendid Normandy
Jamie Blake Knox writes about reliving childhood summers in rural France
Published 21/04/2014 | 02:30
When I was a child, our family spent many holidays driving through rural France.
While these trips were enjoyable, they were not exactly carefree. My mother would not claim to be an accomplished navigator, and as for my father – well, let's say that the term "road rage" could have been coined just for him.
On one occasion, all we passengers fell asleep in the car once we had disembarked from the ferry at Cherbourg. My father drove on while we slept, and woke us just as we reached the base of the spectacular Gothic spires of the medieval abbey of Mont St Michel. Even at a tender age, I was awestruck by what I saw towering above me. Almost two decades have passed since I first cast eyes on this extraordinary building, but Mont St Michel has lost none of its ability to stun and impress the visitor.
I had arrived in Normandy the previous night, and stayed at a five-star camping site, at Maupertus-sur-Mer. Once again, I had childhood memories of such sites – but was glad to see they had greatly improved since I had last stayed in one. This time I was staying in a chalet – rather than a tent – at l'Anse du Brick, and although the accommodation was fairly basic, it was very comfortable. The view from my room also provided a breathtaking vista of the bay.
That night, I headed into the nearby market town of Saint-Pierre-Eglise, where I enjoyed my first taste of real French cuisine – roast pork served with an exquisite Camembert sauce, and washed down with a sparkling local cider that had been laced with creme de cassis. Afterwards, I sampled Calvados liqueur for the first time – at nearly 50 per cent proof, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is, however, difficult to resist, which may explain why I slept so soundly that night.
I was up bright and early the next morning, and made my way to another sleepy little village. Villedieu-les-Poeles is famous for its tradition of copper making and bell-casting. In fact, it has supplied the new bells for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The town was founded in the Middle Ages by the Knights of Malta, and it has retained much of its medieval charm, with a series of more than 50 delightful courtyards, and clusters of small shops selling lace, copper pots and local produce.
From there, I went to Mont St Michel – which is France's most visited tourist attraction outside Paris. This tiny rock island is packed with visitors during the height of summer, but it was relatively uncrowded on my visit. The Abbey was built across different centuries, and displays evidence of many different styles of architecture. It also offers splendid views of the surrounding Norman coast and landscape. I was disappointed, however, by the tacky nature of the numerous souvenir shops – and by the exorbitant prices charged at the local restaurants.
I lunched off the island, at a wonderful establishment some miles away. The speciality of Le Beauvoir is a dish of local lamb that has been fed on the salt marshes that surround Mont St Michel. It was succulent and quite delicious – especially when accompanied by some crisp Breton beer. That night, I stayed in an up-market gite at La Vielle Abbaye. The gite was run by a Frenchman, and his English wife – and their national cuisines were combined in my evening meal. I dined on organic pork, from the family's own farm, served in a rich and creamy sauce, and with exceptional roast potatoes. To finish off, I was presented with a selection of mouthwatering Norman tarts and home-made ice cream.
The following morning, I travelled to Falaise – the birthplace of William the Conqueror. My initial reaction was one of slight disappointment: the castle stood bare and unadorned, with some of its walls lying in ruins. Rather than restoring the interiors, the curators had come up with a more original solution. I was handed a tablet which allowed me to interact with each space – and to discover for myself what each chamber would have looked like when it was first constructed. There were also a number of absorbing interactive games – which would keep even the most demanding child occupied for hours.
At the end of the morning, I was reluctant to leave but I knew I was heading for the main attraction of my visit.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and it is impossible to travel far in Normandy without seeing dramatic evidence of that historic event. My first stop was Caen, described by Samuel Beckett in 1945 as "the capital of destruction", where I saw the imposing memorial and museum which was built to mark the Allied invasion. The museum contains some remarkable exhibits relating to World War Two, and to the D-Day landings. They have recently opened the bunker occupied by General Wilhelm Richter, commander of the 716th German infantry division, who was in command of this section of the German Atlantic Wall which guarded the coastal sector from Omaha to the mouth of the Orne.
I found it impossible not to be drawn to the beaches where so many Allied soldiers had died. I headed first for Juno Beach – where Canadian and British troops had stormed ashore. The museum here is run by a private charity, with modest funding, but its staff were very helpful, and many of the exhibits and film shows are of great historical interest. I explored the nearby pillboxes and fortified positions from which German troops had resisted the greatest invasion force ever launched.
I should declare a personal interest: my great-uncle landed on one of these beaches on D-Day and was badly wounded by a landmine. There were a number of Irish soldiers who also took part in the landings. I decided to track down the grave of one of them in the immense war cemetery at Bayeux. Private Joseph Mullally was 28, and came from Moate in County Meath. He had deserted the Irish Army, and joined the Green Howards Regiment. Private Mullally was shot dead less than an hour after he arrived in Normandy. However, a year later he was still placed on the Irish Government's black list of deserters who were subject to severe and long-lasting penalties. Last year, Private Mullally, along with almost 5,000 other Irish deserters, was finally exonerated from any blame.
I visited his grave, and it reminded me that the links between Normandy and Ireland are both ancient and modern. By exploring its history, we are also in a real sense exploring our own. Rosslare to Cherbourg from €89 (car + 1 single) www.stenaline.ie/
5* Camping l'Anse du Brick at Maupertus-sur-Mer;
La Vieille Abbaye in Suisse Normande;
Résidence Pierre et Vacances in Courseulles-sur-Mer;
La Hannière in Utah Beach
More info: www.normandie-tourisme.fr
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