Thursday, September 13, 2007

Travels through the north country

Though this blog is often devoted to far weightier matters than the trajectory of my weekend entertainments (I hope), this past Saturday my friend Claire and I took off from Paris and discovered that driving through Normandy in the lush and still-warm early autumn must be one of the more understated yet sublime pleasures of time spent in France.

Heading north from the French capital and getting lost in one or two somnolent country towns along the way, we eventually arrived in the department of Calvados and decamped at Bayeux, an almost-as-sleepy historic city of winding cobblestone streets, an impressive cathedral and a reputation as a repository of one of the loveliest pieces of political propaganda ever created. The 200 foot-long Tapisserie de Bayeux, perhaps the city’s main attraction, depicts, in 58 exquisitely colored and detailed panels, the political intrigue that preceded the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and the triumph of William the Conqueror (also known, somewhat less generously, as William the Bastard) over the forces of England’s King Harold II at the Battle Of Hastings.

We browsed the tapestry for a time with the other assorted gawking tourists before traveling to the Norman coast and entirely different sort of historical record.

The somber and seemingly endless Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial stretches over 172.5 acres on a flat bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, which saw the bloodiest combat during the June 6, 1944 D Day invasion of France by American, British, Canadian and other forces in the opening salvo of what would become the Battle of Normandy, which would eventually liberate France from Nazi occupation. The cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 U.S. military dead, many of who lost their lives in the D Day assault, as well as a memorial to 1,557 soldiers who went missing, and a stroll through the expanse of crosses and occasional Stars of David, powerfully brings home the human toll of war. Strolling over Omaha Beach itself, facing some still-extant German machine gun turrets, gives only the faintest hint of the terror that must have awaited the soldiers once they landed on the beach on the summer morning so many decades ago.

We wrapped up our trip with a visit to a distillery, set behind tall gates and producing alcoholic cider and the region’s distinctive Calvados brandy, oak barrels of which sat marinating inside dusty storehouses. Then, to the strains of M.I.A., we were back on the N13, heading home.

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