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A day on the way to Normandy

A few weeks ago, part one:

Now the lockdown in France has come to an end I can’t resist going to Normandy and very curious how post-lockdown life is in that big country. The plan is doing an as much as possible off the beaten track trip and I have a list of lovely places like to visit I hadn’t time for during previous trips to one of my favorite regions in France.

Living just north of Bruges in the Netherlands it will be some 400 km before arriving at the abbeys of Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville and Jumièges west of Rouen. First stop after a few hours driving will be Arras for enjoying a coffee and those two wunderful historic main squares, but this time there is an event going on and the whole “centre ville” is packed with cars and visitors. With the pandemonium in my mind I feel no appetite joining the party so prefer to move on. Usually I have my “holiday starts now” feeling in Arras but that has to wait a bit this time.

The national road to Abbeville is long and boring but driving through Saint-Riquer and seeing it’s impressive abbey I have my first wow moment. Northern France is not overloaded with attractive places, somehow I like it and there are nevertheless nice surprices like this abbey. No time to pay a visit, maybe next. Not much later I will drive over the toll road through the attractive hills of upper Normandy and step by step that holiday feeling starts to come. It’s impossible to avoid Rouen, but practising at home with Googel Street View helped me finding my way hasselfree to the first abbey.

Saint-George-de-Boscherville is the actual name of this once Benedictine abbey, but as I want to spend more time in Jumièges I go only inside the abbey’s church. Built in the 12th century in the Norman Romanesque style, elements in gothic style are added later it luckely escaped the destructive horror of the French Revolution. You can’t say that of the abbey of Jumièges, as the job was half done it’s said to be now the most beautiful ruin of France. If you have visited France more often you certainly know this is not the only casaulty of that very turbulent period in this country. Benedictine too and built mainly in the same style, some parts are also Gothic, once a new church it was consecrated in the presence of William the Conqueror, a year after he invaded England, what a busy man it was! Ruin or not, these places have always that special feel and for that worth paying a visit and enjoy things pleasing the eye and experiencing that unique atmosphere.

It’s about an hour driving to the campsite in Pont-Authou further south. First I have to cross the Seine with the free car ferry just a mile west of Jumièges. Nothing calms down more as moving over gently flowing water, especially after so many hours driving. Thinking about Paris it’s hard to believe that this famous river is here so very countryside, so peaceful and beautiful. Don’t think no more about home, I am now in another world, Wow, finally that “holiday starts now” feeling has arrived! Once driving further instead the most direct route I follow some scenic roads with those lovely Norman half-timbered houses.
At the campsite the keeper is a laid-back friendly Française who likes her job. She allows me to pick a spot for my tent wherever I like, despite the end of the lockdown there are not so much visitors, so plenty of space. The only foreign geusts are just a few guess fellow Dutchman, all others are French.

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Part two:

After setting up my tent and having diner, there are still a few hours or so before sunset, perfect for visiting nearby Le Bec-Hellouin, one of those outstanding lovely villages in France. The road to it is under repair and blocked, finding an alternative route soon the first half timbered houses show up giving the idea something special to expect, a bit further downhill the abbey’s tower rising up from the foliage strengthens that idea even more. Few cars, shops closed, only a handful of people sitting outside, someone reads a book in the park or a bit further one sits with closed eyes under the abbeys bell tower musing about…. Le Bec dreams peacefully in the soft evening light. It’s so stunningly beautiful here, this is what I am looking for, this is worth all those boring hours of driving.

Before it’s really dark I decide driving around a bit more. The countryside is lovely here everywhere, almost no traffic and there are plenty of those beautiful half-timbered houses. Château du Champ de Bataille is worth a visit too and not so far away, but closed ofcourse at this time of the day, however happy just catching a glimpse from the outside. With a steep entrance fee of €30 I prefer to skip it this trip even that it’s gardens belong to the most attractive in France. On the way back to the campsite tiny Harcourt is lovely too with all it’s half-timbered houses but Le Bec-Hellouin is definitely the more charming place. In the meanwhile it’s dark, I am obviously tired after such a busy but rewarding day, time to sleep and dreaming further of the days to come….

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What a lovely trip report Wil. I'm really enjoying your descriptions of the places you visited, and look forward to your next installment.

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Lovely report - so far - Wil... I'm glad that you sound healthy and able to get around.

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Hey, Wil, as a Belgian, will you be trading your beer for cider in Normandy? And a waffle or pralines for an apple tart? Thank you for the report; hope the trip is going well!

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The border is close in that part of the world - Wil is Dutch. Poffertjes for waffles? Then the trade...for an apple tart...

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Thanks everyone for all the warm responses and glad to hear too that everybody is doing well.

Cyn – Actually as Nigel already notes I am Dutch, it was maybe lesser confusing to write that I live in the Netherlands close to the border just north of Bruges. Well I don’t drink alcohol, just occasionally like during a birthday party, nevertheless I enjoyed a bottle of Cider in Normandy. About food I am like most Dutch pretty tolerant, so waffles, poffertjes or apple tart, all are delicious!

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Day two, part three:

The weather today will be a bit warm, but like yesterday with a nice clear blue sky and some clouds for the rest very cooperative.
Plan was initially to stay the next night in Falaise. What makes the campsite there so unique is that you will have William the Conqueror’s huge medieval fortress as an impressive background decor for free. Alas you have to book at least three nights what is for me two nights to many. Instead I booked one at the “camping municipal” in Argentan south-east of Falaise.

For me a holiday without visiting a château is no holiday, further south of Pont-Authou, Château de Beaumesnil is the first on my list. Before arriving there I make a scenic detour to Bernay, with a stop in tiny cute Fontaine l’Abbé, a hidden gem you can enjoy just leaving the main road. Ofcourse a church and a few houses it’s picture perfect, no tourists, only locals, mainly farmers passing by in their tractors.
Looking for more I discover the local château and it looks a bit public as there are no signs warning to stay away. So walked through the gate to have a closer look and what in the worst case can happen than meeting an annoyed owner requesting to leave his property. Sending away unwanted geusts, oh dear there is the watchdog!! Seeing the dog seeing me made me freeze instantly, not directly the shredder type but big enough to be (hopefully not) painfully annoying, is he or she “ méchant” (mordacious) or not will be soon clear. Just turned to start my not so glorious retreat I heard sooner as expected that threatening growl just behind my back. Remaining calm as good as I can I walk that thirty long and slow meters to the gate, to freedom! Still some ten meters to go, to my releave the dog stopped following. Pffuw! Maybe didn’t fancy an old lump of meat today, be more careful next time Wil….

Bernay is nice for driving through but there are more places on todays agenda, otherwise walking around for a while there is certainly worth doing. However I prefer driving further to Beaumesnil.
The château has the same appearance as the one of Balleroy near Bayeux but is I think just a bit smaller, you see in a glance this place belonged once to the higher ranks of French nobility. It’s built in that gorgeous Baroque style from the first half of the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIII. Like Jumièges it suffered a lot during the French Revolution as most of the interior was looted, except the Louis XV room remained think for the major part intact and not sure that huge kitchen in the basement too.
Easily to notice the other rooms decorated by later owners never got back their original splendor. Looking closer you can see the château is not in it’s best shape and needs a serious makeover, but I am afraid the Foundation lacks the financiel resources to do it properly. Actually I expected more, nevertheless it’s a joy to walk around here and with just a handful of visitors you have the idea having the whole place to yourself. It’s like the abbeys of yesterday it’s that special feel I’m looking for.

Broglie within a half hour driving west is worth getting out of my car too. From the parking I have to cross a tiny stream and via a narrow alley passes first the church. It’s open so just out of curiosity have a look inside and for experiencing that serene atmosphere. Once back outside also here half-timbered houses dominate the street scene, till so far hard to get enough of it. This cute place doesn’t look really touristy even this time of the year, it would attrack way more people (and commerce too) if it was closer to the beaten track. There is only one cafe terrace so likely most are locals or maybe some French tourists who enjoy a drink or a meal. Even no souvenir shops or whatever too, the place looks like more places here being the domain of the locals and feels for that more authentic, that’s what I like most.

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Part four:

Next stop will be Haras National du Pin, the royal stables of Louis XIV, before arriving there will be a long drive. On the way just driving out of Exmes you have a fantastic panoramic vue of the valley.
It seemed they couldn’t find a better place close to Versailles at the time for horse breeding so the whole project was early 18th century realised far away here in Normandy. Louis didn’t enjoy much of it’s completion as the “haras” came in use several months before he died in september 1715. Today it’s the oldest of the French “Haras Nationaux” (National Studs), still an important hippique centre and do me think to what you can find in Chantilly north of Paris, not a haras nationaux btw. There are guided tours in the museum and a “spectacle” , and with this warm weather I don’t really like hanging around in museums so buy a ticket for the show. Seeing all those pictures at the entrance I thought going to attend something impressive and exciting comparable to that famous show of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Couldn’t be more wrong, with all te respect the spectacle I saw was held at a hidden away paddock, a bit amateuristic and more show than go. For kids fantastic, but not what I expected.
Nevertheless for all those loving horses it’s a fantastic place, there are interesting events and shows at special occasions, get well informed before you go. Later I heard the museum would have been a better choice. More info: https://www.haras-national-du-pin.com/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haras_national_du_Pin

On the way to Argentan road signs to Mémoral de Montormel are attracting my attention and realise that here in the neighbourhood was the Falaise Pocket during WWII. It was here that the 7th German Army was defeated in August 1944 and made the outbrake of the Allied Forces to the rest of Europe possible. There is enough time for a 20 km detour to the memorial so off I go.
The memorial is located on a plateau from where you can oversee the surrounding lower land. To my surprise I see that the same II Canadian Corps and 1st Polish Armoured Division that liberated the region where I live played a crucial rol here in the victory of Normandy. I am in doubt visiting the museum here but tomorrow I go to the Museum of the Battle of Normandy in Bayeux and decide to skip this one. Going to here wasn’t planned, it was a spontanious decision, sometimes that can pay off well, glad I made the detour.