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Jen M

Brittany and Normandy

Following a discussion about books to read in Normandy, which resulted in some welcome recommendations of places to visit, I'm posting here about my holiday.  This may be better suited to the rebel board, but I don't think that everyone who joined in the previous thread is a member of the rebel board.

We (myself, husband and two teenagers) spent a week on a lovely "Hotel en plein Air" (caravan and camping parc) in south Brittany, followed by three nights on a much less relaxing one in Normandy.

Our first week was spent winding down, visiting some lovely old towns, a quiet beach, short walks, and enjoying the facilities on the parc (bar, pool, tennis court, gardens).  The weather was disappointing at the beginning of the week but improved greatly by the time we moved on.   It was a lovely peaceful setting and just what I needed.  

We then moved on to Normandy via Mont-St-Michel, which was a mistake.  This is a lovely place to visit off-season, but in August the queues to get along the road nearby, around the island itself and to get out of the car park (2 hours!) are not conducive to a grand day out whatever your taste in days out.  

The next three days were spent visiting several WWII locations.  My husband had visited some war cemeteries on a previous solo visit and roused my interest; we also felt it important that our teenagers get a better understanding of this period of history.  

Chris-l suggested the Caen Memorial, which is a huge museum focusing on 20th century history after WWI.  It puts WWII into context, providing a lot of background information on how the political and economic situation in Europe and the US led to WWII.  The main part of the museum is about WWII in its entirety, as far as I could see.  We saw a quite shocking film, being a composite of films from that time set to appropriate music (so no language barrier); the destruction of the towns and villages in that part of Normandy was appalling.  There is another section on the post-WWII world, including the Cold War.  In the museum grounds there are US, Canadian and British memorial gardens.  We spent 7 hours there and still did not see it all.  All the information panels and guide books etc are in French, English and German.  This was an excellent day out (but not a cheerful one) and taught us all things we didn’t know.  

On our second day in Normandy we intended to visit war cemeteries and some of the D-Day landing beaches.  We started at Ranville Cemetery, which is small in war cemetery terms, but shocked us all with the numbers of beautifully kept white memorial stones, in well-maintained gardens.  I found it very sad reading some of the families’ inscriptions on the stones.  We then spent some time at the Pegasus Bridge Museum (thanks Mike); I would have liked to have spent longer there, but we wanted to get to some more places.  Looking at the beaches was a bit pointless in retrospect; they were just beaches covered in people sunning themselves (which initially struck us as disrespectful, considering what we had seen – but why should it be – life goes on, after all?).  That evening, however, we went out for a meal, and saw the beach nearest to our holiday parc (which had been part of the “Juno” landing beach, used by the Canadian troops) without the many holidaymakers, which was at least peaceful.  

Our final day was spent at Bayeux, which is an attractive old town in itself.  We went to see the famous tapestry, which involved more queuing, but at least this queue was moving.   They also had audio guides in English, which was helpful, as it is not always clear what is going on in the tapestry.  I have wanted to see the tapestry since learning about it in primary school – so another minor ambition achieved!  Finally, we visited the Bayeux war cemetery, which is mainly for British troops.  This is larger than Ranville, but similar; well-kept throughout.  Both, along with many others, are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

This was an excellent holiday, combining relaxation, activity and history in an area three of us had never visited before.  It was also good to use my rusty French and find it coming back!  Thanks for the suggestions of places to visit; I would recommend all the places we went to in Normandy and there is plenty more to see, particularly if you are interested in this period of history.

And in retrospect, I should have taken a novel set in WWII as my holiday reading.

Thanks, Jen, that was really interesting.

One WWII novel I love is Andrew Greig's That Summer - not set in Normandy, though, it's set in England.  Wonderful stuff.
Jen M

Thanks for the suggestion, Evie.  Coincidentally, I had an email from Greenmetropolis (second-hand books site) this morning reminding me that I had £8.00 in my account, so I searched for That Summer and have ordered it.  If it arrives quickly, I might even read it soon, but I seem to have acquired a lot of books recently.

Great to hear of your trip, Jen.  In 2007 we spent a week based in Caen and went to the Bayeux Tapestry which I loved, and wandered along some of the Normandy beaches.  It was summer, but I don't recall things being too crowded at all.  (We were travelling with someone in a wheelchair which did mean we could drive straight up to places and get in easily.) We spent time at the Cathedrals of William and Matilda.  

We finished at L'Ile de Noirmoutier a little south where my husband's uncle is remembered in a Commonwealth war grave - just a few of them in an enormous Catholic cemetery.  Absolutely beautiful place (not the cemetery, the whole town and area).  

Thanks for that.

Cheers, Caro.

That was entertaining, Jen. The closest I got to Normandy was a holiday in Amiens eons ago!
There will be hundreds of novels about the war in the area. The one I recall is The ’44 Vintage by Anthony Price who specializes in spy thrillers with a military history background. From memory, it concentrates on the Normandy landings.
Jen M

Yes, it was really good and I certainly hope to go back.  Friends of ours are renovating a property in northern France so this might actually be possible.  My teenagers were so moved by the war cemeteries that we are considering "adopting" a war grave near us - there is an Anzac cemetery not far from where we live so we'll try to have a look and investigate whether this is realistic while the idea is fresh in our minds.

I'm glad you found the visit to the Caen Memorial worthwhile. As you say, it is not a cheerful place, in fact I found it emotionally very draining, but I think from time to time we need to undergo that sort of catharsis. Personally I consider that as good a use of holiday time as any other!

Bayeux is, in its own way, another view of 'war, and the pity of war', although there is sufficient distance for it to be possible to see that rather more dispassionately. My only disappointment, on the occasions that I have been, is that the recorded commentary moves you on rather too quickly.

I realised too late (but in the event it didn't matter), that I had referred to 'La Place des Ternes' in Rouen, when in fact, it should have been 'Place des Carmes'. I really must learn to distinguish between these monastic orders. Not important this time, but if you go that way again, armed with 'Flaubert's Parrot', it could make all the difference.

Jen M wrote:
My teenagers were so moved by the war cemeteries that we are considering "adopting" a war grave near us - there is an Anzac cemetery not far from where we live so we'll try to have a look and investigate whether this is realistic while the idea is fresh in our minds.

Jen, maybe your teenagers are part of a world wide trend. There has been a tremendous response by young people here to the Anzac Day dawn services on April 25 each year. At one time the veterans of various wars were concerned that numbers attending services were diminishing as the old soldiers died. Now youngsters of all ages are attending in addition to organizations such as Scouts, Guides and the youth clubs associated with all types of activities. Within a radius of ten kilometers of our house there are six suburbs which have their own service in addition to the main Auckland one at the War Memorial Museum in the Domain.
Later in the day the Gallipoli commemorations are broadcast on TV and radio.
Another trend reported by travel agents is of many young people planning to visit the war cemeteries when on holiday in Europe.

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