During my time in Normandy, I needed a rental car in order to visit some of the more remote villages I had on my list. This was my first time driving alone on foreign soil, but (naively) I’d always felt up to the task. For some inexplicable reason, I had been under the misguided notion that I could find my way through the French countryside simply by using old-school road maps. I clung to this belief in the weeks, then days leading up to the “Time in the Car” portion of my summer journey, and staunchly fended off the international smartphone data plans which would provide me with satellite navigation.
It was only when I was picking up the car at the Rouen train station that doubts began to creep in about how I might manage reading an unwieldy paper map while simultaneously driving, and I was beginning to suspect that this road trip could (and probably would) end in any number of disastrous ways.
Thankfully, there was a guardian angel looking out for me somewhere because, by some act of Providence, the rental car assigned to me came equipped with a built-in navigation system.
Now, it was set up to deliver instructions in French. But, summoning every last bit of French I could remember, I managed to work out from the car manual how to get my navigator speaking to me in English. And not just that, but I had my choice of what kind of accent my navigator would have – either British English or Australian English. Without pausing to dwell on the “oversight” of there being no American English option, I selected the Brit because he sounded a bit like a butler, which made me feel rather elegant.
The rental car itself was a Renault (this being France and all), just spacious enough for me and my luggage. Its exterior color was an unmissable “rouge clair”, which translates roughly to “screaming red” in English. Not even the most retina-burning shades of fingernail polish could rival the car’s neon glow, so the pressure was on for me to get through my road trip without putting any nicks in the paint job.
It had been in Claire the car that I had visited St. Valery-en-Caux, and then Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. After an afternoon spent on the hallowed sand and soil of the D-Day invasion, I was emotionally spent by the time I was in the car and on the road to Bayeux, which was my next destination and stopping point for the night. God bless that navigation system, for it made quick work of my journey, and delivered me without incident to my hotel in the center of the city.
Stepping through the hotel’s front door, I instantly fell head over heels for the place. Housed in an ancient building – a converted something-or-other – the hotel was a sublime mix of medieval architecture and swinging modern furnishings. My appointed room was huge, with three tall windows and a fireplace. The bed was modern groovy – padded white vinyl with some sort of remote-controlled colored lighting effects built into the underside of the frame.
(It would turn out, unfortunately, that I would never figure out how to work the remote, and in the end I would be too tired to pursue the matter. Oh well. I wasn’t cool enough for the bed anyway.)
As soon as I dropped my bags, I hit the streets of Bayeux, and it was love at first sight there, too. Creamy yellow sandstone buildings, ancient, narrow cobblestone streets, a gorgeous cathedral. It was one of the prettiest cities I had ever visited.
If Bayeux wasn’t already wonderful enough, I discovered walking around town that when it came to restaurants, I was spoiled for choice. It took a while, but finally I elected to have dinner at a place where I could have some of those delicious mussels in curry sauce.
It was a cozy place, with the tables quite close together. To my left, there was a French couple who were very polite and very patient with me as we exchanged a bit of small talk in their language. On my right side was a German family complete with two adorable dogs, one of whom put his paws in my lap and gave me kisses. The family was friendly and we were able to speak a little as well, in French — a second language for both of us.
After my day on the Normandy coastline – the French soil where that watershed battle between Americans and Germans known as D-Day had taken place – Bayeux had brought me back to a happier time: now. The French, the Germans and my American self all enjoyed our food and wine together, and there was only friendship amongst our tables.
It was just what I needed to reaffirm that goodness and the human spirit can – and always will – prevail.
After a heavenly sleep that night, in the bed that was way too cool for me, I was ready the next morning for a day of balls-to-the-wall sightseeing that would make any “12-countries-in-6-days” tour company proud. I hit the ground running, starting with a hot-footed trek through the Bayeux Cathedral. While perhaps not as storied or famous as Notre Dame or Rouen, it is exquisite, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and worth every moment of the eight and a half minutes I spent touring it before heading onto the next stop, which was a biggie: The Bayeux Tapestry.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this iconic piece of needlework, especially what sort of reaction I would have to it. Like most people, I find that when something is historic, legendary, and altogether a huge deal, it’s a real roll of the dice whether or not it can live up to one’s expectations, and what sort of response it will elicit.
Take the La Brea Tar Pits, for example. One would be lead to believe, simply from Bugs Bunny’s insatiable quest to see them, that they would be “all that”. Not so. As many of us have learned upon making that pilgrimage, it’s really a pretty serious letdown. Yes, the Tar Pits have geological significance (luckily for everyone’s sake, I can’t expound on what it is). But, for me at least, the whole thing looked like nothing more than a pond with a cloudy black puddle in one corner. I found myself more excited over a random pool of tar that had broken through the asphalt in the parking lot.
Happily, I found the tapestry to be both exceptionally beautiful and interesting, impressive in its scope (but who wouldn’t be dazzled by 68 meters, or 230 feet, of intricate needlework), and I applauded not only its artistry, but marveled over the amount of effort it must’ve taken to produce the piece. I was so taken with it, in fact, that I even lingered over the tapestry for longer than the allotted fifteen minutes I’d given it – to the point of robbing myself of precious time in the gift shop – before I headed out to where Claire the car was waiting to get on the road to Falaise, our next stop.
As I steered Claire out of Bayeux, I got it into my head to switch the accent on the navigation system from British to Australian. I was now on Day Five of my isolating Time in the Car, without even Cornelia and Emily to keep me company. After St. Valery-en-Caux, I had veered off their path, with every place I visited a detour I had designed for myself. These were my travels. I was on my own, and wouldn’t meet up the girls again until I returned to Rouen.
Seeing as how I’ve always had a soft spot for Aussies, I figured it would be nice to have someone from the land down under keeping me company as I drove. With just a little bit of imagination, an Australian navigator could perhaps start to feel like a companion, almost-kinda-sorta like having a boyfriend in the car, riding shotgun and sharing the journey with me.
At first, it was nice. But soon, I began to feel like my Aussie boyfriend wasn’t so much navigating, as he was telling me how to drive. Which I really didn’t care for. Whether it was something about the accent, the voice of the speaker, or just my imagination, it really seemed as if the Aussie was second-guessing my driving. He began to irritate me, and I grew increasingly annoyed with him each time he told me to turn here or stop there. It wasn’t long before I had to pull Claire over to the side of the road, and go back to my reliable British butler/navigator.
Still, we made good time to Falaise. The town of Falaise is famed for its statue of William the Conqueror and his predecessor Dukes of Normandy. Being a descendant of William the Conqueror – one of many, many millions of descendents – this visit to my grandfathers’ statue was a sort of mini-pilgrimage. Leaving Claire at the first certain parking space I could locate, I made my way through town over to the square where the monument stands. Just a few steps away, there was a mammoth castle which perhaps needed exploring. I took a few minutes to study the figures who encircled William the Conqueror, as well as the Big Duke himself, before making a start towards the castle entrance. Thankfully, cooler heads quickly prevailed and I chose instead to blow it off. After all, I’d already done a cathedral, a tapestry and a statue today. And I can take only so much culture before “museum legs” set in. That’s what Cornelia and Emily call it. They suffered from this affliction during their travels as well.
Plus, I still had miles to go before I slept. So I hustled back to Claire the car and got on the road to Combourg, a neighboring town to Mont St Michel, which I would be visiting the next day.
Full disclosure: I stopped at a McDonald’s on the way to Combourg. Yes, in France. I was in France, with all of that fabulous French food, and I went to McDonald’s. In my defense, I need say only this: Coke with ice, free wi-fi, and a respectably clean restroom stocked with toilet paper.
And a parking lot for Claire.
It had been a hectic day, but I managed to make it to Combourg while it was still afternoon. Combourg turned out to be a handsome little town. The hotel I had booked turned out to be quite nice, with an unexpected sort of New England feel to it, and I managed with half-French, half-English to communicate with the staff. I was finding that as time went by, at least I wasn’t including as many Spanish words in my sentences as I had been early on.
This was my third town in six hours. Not normally the way I travel, but sometimes a full-on, hardcore tourist day is called for. I got to set my own schedule and go anywhere I wanted to. And it was all made possibly by Claire and my navigational butler (with help from the overbearing Aussie as well, I suppose).
Above: Looking up to the statue of William the Conqueror from the base. In the foreground is William Longsword, his great-great-great-grandfather.
An imposing bit of the Bayeux Cathedral; the Cordeliers’ Gate, part of the ramparts surrounding the city of Falaise (Claire the car can be seen waiting outside the gate); photo-op with some of my kin (a small hint of the massive castle can be seen to the right of the statue).