Twenty miles west of Dieppe along France’s Normandy coastline is the town of St. Valery-en-Caux. It is in this picturesque village that Cornelia and Emily spent numerous days honing their French skills, and filling their afternoons with bike rides through the countryside and swims in the sea.
It was with a lot of affection that they wrote of St. Valery and its people. From their stay in Madame Corue’s charming and homey pension to their adventures with Therese, the daughter of the local wine merchant, it’s clear that Cornelia’s and Emily’s time here was one of the best parts of their entire summer. Which made me eager for my own visit to the town, to see how much I could step into their world and share their memories.
I arrived in St. Valery-en-Caux on a cool, gloomy, drizzly day, but the weather couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. So after getting settled into my hotel in the Place du Marche (the market square), I hurried out to go exploring.
Cornelia and Emily don’t mention in the book specifically how long they stayed in St. Valery, but it was probably at least two to three weeks. They wrote extensively about their time here, providing detailed descriptions of the town, so there was a lot for me to look for. And I had given myself just three days to cover it all.
I began with a stroll around the bassin, or “inner harbor”. Right in the thick of it all, the Henry IV house was there, exactly as Cornelia and Emily described.
“There was a 16th Century gem with leaded casements and ornately carved beams known as the Henri IV House, no one knew why, but it was a popular belief, or hope, rather, that the amorous monarch spent a night of love there.”
And then it was back around to the other side of the bassin for a stroll along the promenade, where the girls most likely went in for their swims. I crossed my fingers that the weather would improve enough for me to swim at least once while I was in St. Valery. It was a biggie on my checklist, but I would need a sunny day for it. But it wasn’t looking good.
The next day was a repeat of my first – cold, gloomy, blustery, with the added attraction of choppy seas. So I opted to climb up one of the hills to get pictures of paths that the girls had talked about:
“Rising on either side of St. Valery were great chalk cliffs, twins of the Dover ones… along the edge of these cliffs went winding paths, worn by the generations of lonely women who, of an evening, after their work was finished, would pace the high promontories, sometimes knitting a sock or crocheting a bit of lace, their eyes searching the horizon for the sight of a home-coming sail.”
The day before, I had noticed a set of stairs cut into one of the hillsides flanking the town, and now I set off to climb them. Taking a different route through town to the stairs, I came upon something I hadn’t seen, or noticed, on my first day’s outing.
There, cut into the white cliff that the girls had written of, were the remains of a Nazi bunker.
It was an ugly, concrete rectangular box, which would have served as a great vantage point for scouting and for firing weapons. Suddenly I felt very much on my own. The girls weren’t with me now. Cornelia and Emily wouldn’t have ever laid eyes this atrocity.
It was in this moment that I first began to understand, and what would be made painfully clear in the days which followed, that the idyllic village which the girls had visited was not the place I was seeing today.
I felt as if a defining line had been drawn between their experience and mine: the line of World War II. And as the days went on, in spite of the nice moments I would have, and the charms which St. Valery offers today, that line would seem to widen into a chasm.
A bit unnerved, I made my way up the hill, stopping at the point along the steps which sat directly over that hideous bunker. I was standing where Nazis had once stood. It had happened before, in my past travels through Europe. I knew that for a fact. But this was the first time that it felt so personal. The sensation of time and space blurring was not a welcome one now. I took a few photos from that spot, but didn’t remain there long.
I made my way up to the top of the cliff, and found a winding dirt path that ran along its edge – well-worn as if it had been tread by those fishermen’s wives that the girls had written of. Cornelia’s and Emily’s world did exist in this place. At least some of it did. I was just happy that this one lovely, poignant detail from the book was still intact.
Whatever miscalculations I might have made with Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey timeline, I was in no doubt that by Thursday, July 13th, they were in St. Valery. As if to reward me for my efforts in bringing the girls back here exactly 95 years later, the heavens offered up a sunny day, just warm enough to go swimming.
I walked along the sea wall to where steps lead down to the shoreline. The girls had prepared me for the rocky beach, but even their use of the word “agony” didn’t seem strong enough for the punishment my feet took as I made my way to the sea.
At first, the water was cold to the point one might call bracing, but soon it seemed to get better and was really quite pleasant. I swam for about half an hour, and had wanted to stay in longer but the tide was coming in, pushing me most fervently back to shore. I obliged its wishes, allowing the waves to deliver me to water’s edge. Once again I traversed the brutal rocks, and made my way back up to the sea wall, where I sat soaking in the sunshine as the summer breeze dried me off.
There was still one major item left on my St. Valery checklist, the one I had been putting off. Leaving my happy spot on the sea wall, I walked around to la Place de la Chapelle. It had been important for me to find the church that Cornelia and Emily visited in 1922, and I was pretty certain it would have been situated in the “Chapel Square”.
Only that church didn’t exist anymore.
A late 20th century church now stands in la Place de la Chapelle and as soon as I entered, I knew I had the right building, or at least the right location. This church, like the one the girls had visited, was dedicated to la Vierge Marie. I found further confirmation of my hunch in the form of a large picture of the former church, displayed on the vestibule wall. In the corner of that picture was the shrine to the Virgin Mary that the girls wrote about.
“… before her altar, a touching assortment of offerings, some dating from days past, some freshly recent… Some were in payment for a vow made when a ship had been nearly lost in a tempest, some waited there in prayer for those who had set forth gaily with the fishing fleet but had not returned.”
Knowing that I was standing where the girls had been, but not exactly, I became a bit weepy for what had been lost, and that chasm between our worlds. I lit a candle for Madame Corue and Therese and all of the inhabitants of St. Valery who in 1940 would’ve had to witness a brutal battle for their town, then its surrender to General Rommel and enemy forces.
What had never occurred to me in my first hundred readings of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, was all too painfully apparent now: At the time Cornelia and Emily would’ve been putting words to paper about the people of St. Valery, these dear souls would’ve been living under Nazi rule and undoubtedly enduring losses about which I could only speculate.
That connecting strand between the girls’ world and mine now felt twisted and strained as it stretched across the widening divide between our experiences.
Soon after, I returned to the sunshine. The day was still bright and lovely, and as it was to be my last one here, I made the most of it, taking pictures of the shoreline at high and low tides, and of fishermen bringing in their catch, which they would then sell right there on the dock.
From there, I trekked over to other side of the harbor, and meandered through narrow cobblestone streets lined in ancient buildings which had been spared from the bombs that had taken down so much of the village. As I made my way along a picturesque medieval street, I met a lovely older lady who spoke to me as I was taking photos. I managed a brief conversation in French with her, asking about the age of her home and complimenting her on its beauty. I couldn’t tell if she had made sense of anything I said, but she was very gracious nevertheless.
It was a happy note on which to end my days in St Valery, and I was awfully thankful to have it. For tomorrow I would be heading to what was surely to be a profound and emotional experience: the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery.
Above: A medieval street in St. Valery which was spared by the bombs.
Below, top row: Fishing nets and lines rest along the bassin; white cliffs and a Nazi bunker on a sunny day; a well-worn path overlooking the sea.
Below, bottom row: The rocky beach; a new church on an old foundation; a photo of the original church’s interior.