I love visiting countries where English isn’t the primary language spoken – language is so much a part of a culture and a national identity. But, as someone who speaks only a smattering of other languages, communicating in these countries can sometimes pose a bit of a problem.
I usually find that people in the larger cities speak at least a little English. In smaller centres it may not be quite so simple. Interestingly, Bayeux was the exception to this rule.
At times I felt like I heard more English than French when we were there. I suppose this was mainly because of the close links between Normandy and the Allied landings in WWII – the town was full of tourists from UK, Canada and the USA exploring sites related to the June 1944 landings. So we heard a lot of English in restaurants, tourist sites, and wandering the streets of the town.
The high number of English-speaking tourists meant that most locals spoke good English. Which makes a certain amount of sense. But I found it somewhat unsettling after spending a week in Paris, where I was surrounded by the poetry of the French language.
In Bayeux, Craig and I were in the minority when we stumbled along in our broken French when speaking to locals, whether visiting sites or ordering food. In a few cases our attempts were met with polite acknowledgement and a response in English. But, far more often, the people we spoke to smiled warmly and answered in French.
The one area we encountered very little English was in the local produce market. And that was fine – we managed to communicate well enough to buy what we were looking for.
In some ways, the high level of English made our trip to Bayeux easier. We could always fall back on English if our limited French wasn’t enough to make our needs understood, whether trying to find out information we needed. But, like I said, it just felt a little odd to me to be in such a historic French town and yet hearing so much English being spoken. At least, that was my impression.
Apart from the language issue, which I never really adjusted to, I found my time in Bayeux and Normandy a real pleasure – Time seemed to flow just a little bit slower there. I found it both peaceful and restful – something I was in desperate need of after a busy few months in Cape Town and a chaotic week in Paris.
I’d definitely recommend Normandy if you’re planning time in France and looking for a quieter area to spend a few days. And Bayeux is a great base from which to explore the region.
Sadly, our trip – like all good things – had to come to an end and it’s now time for us to pack our bags and head back home to Cape Town. I hope you’ve enjoyed spending a little time with me in France, both in Paris and Normandy.
I’m sure it won’t be long before the travel bug bites again, and I’ll be sharing plans for our next trip…
I’m probably your worst nightmare as a dinner guest – I’m vegetarian. And also don’t eat spinach, mushrooms, olives or blue cheese…. Which automatically seems to rule out most of the dishes most people serve vegetarian guests.
It’s also why I’m generally a little nervous when I travel. There’s always the risk that I’m going to struggle to find something I can, or rather will, eat. I’m usually fine in major cities, which tend to have a broad range of food options. But sometimes I struggle when visiting smaller towns.
So I was delighted to discover that Normandy had such a rich and varied selection of food for me to choose from. Sure, there were a few restaurants where my choices were limited, but I never went to a restaurant in Normandy where my only option was a plate of fries.
In various restaurants I was able to enjoy delicious omlettes, quiches, salads and gourmet sandwiches. I even found a few restaurants that served tasty vegetarian burgers. And, of course, there was always the option of pizza or pasta.
It was also a wonderful surprise to discover that one of my favourite cheeses – Camembert is a specialty of Normandy. So we kept a good stock of it in our fridge while we were in Bayeux.
Another seasonal favourite that I was delighted to find in France was artichoke. But not artichoke as we’d find them in Cape Town, which are usually the size of a large apple. Rather, these artichokes were the size of a football – a soccer ball for my American friends. And they were delicious. Which we discovered when we cooked some in our apartments, both in Paris and Bayeux.
If you, like me, are a fussy vegetarian, I can absolutely recommend Normandy as a place to visit. I can guarantee you won’t go hungry! And I’d be happy to join you if you decide to make that your next travel destination!
I’ve never enjoyed going to museums. Actually, I should rather say that I’ve never been a fan of old-style museums. You know, the type that hides the exhibits away behind glass. And I think you‘ll understand when you consider what that might be like for a visually impaired person for whom sight isn’t an option.
Far more fun for me are museums that try to draw visitors in with interactive and multi-sensory experiences. Amongst my favourites are museums I visited in Poland – the Schindler Museum in Krakow and the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.
What does this have to do with my recent trip to Normandy in France?
I knew we would be visiting some WWII museums while we were in Normandy. I just wasn’t sure what type of museums they’d be. Sadly, I found that most of them weren’t of much interactive interest to me. Until we visited the Normandy Airborne Museum.
Admittedly, I wasn’t able to access many of the exhibits in the Airborne Museum. But those that I was able to engage with using my other senses more than made up for the rest.
The first was a replica of the gliders that carried Allied forces into Normandy to capture control of strategic roads and bridges to help gain a foothold in Normandy. I was able to walk around the outside of the full-scale glider and explore it using the sense of touch. I was also able to climb aboard the glider and feel what it must have been like for the soldiers as the gliders were towed across from England and then set free to glide down into Normandy.
But the real treat awaited me on the upper floor of the museum – a simulation of a troop plane that carried the paratroopers who formed the first wave of the attack. As we stepped into the shell of the large plane we could feel the thrum of the engines beneath our feet, hear the thunderous roar of the engines and the crackle of radio messages from the cockpit. It was eerily authentic to walked through the plane, as the paratroopers would have done so many years ago.
Leaving the plane, you stepped out into a visual representation of what the paratroopers might have seen – the vague shapes of a string of parachutes opening below you, the dim view of the ground far below, with farmhouses, towns, church steeples, fields and woods. Although I wasn’t able to experience this part of the exhibit, my sighted husband said it had a powerful impact on him.
The next part of the simulation was based on what the paratroopers may have experienced on the ground – the chaos, destruction and, above all, the constant stutter of machine guns and explosions. It was an over-stimulation of the senses that left me feeling anxious, unsettled and drained.
Of all the experiences I had in Normandy, this was the one that gave me the clearest idea of the reality of what happened on D Day – 6 June 1944. And the experience was sobering, to say the least. After the simulations, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the reality must have been like.
One of the things I love about travelling in Europe is the abundance of local food and produce markets. I was looking forward to discovering some while in Bayeux. And I was by no means disappointed.
There was a large market every Saturday with a vast range of locally grown produce, meats and cheeses. And another on Wednesday morning.
Craig and I arrived in Bayeux on Friday afternoon, and were ready and waiting to go and stock up by the time Saturday morning arrived. Luckily, we were staying in an Airbnb, so we weren’t limited to cold meats, cheeses and a few pieces of fruit – we also bought plenty of salad ingredients, and some of the largest artichokes I’ve ever seen, along with a few vegetables to cook. And some of the famous Normandy cider.
And then we spied a stall selling nougat – slabs and slabs of different flavoured nougat! I know I’m diabetic and that I really ought not to indulge in too many sweet things, but I have a particular weakness for nougat, so we went to go and have a look. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone cutting nougat like she was slicing a large cake. On the very rare occasion I allow myself to indulge in my secret weakness at home, I usually find pre-packaged nougat in matchbox sized cubes, not 30 by 30 centimetre slabs like those shown in the photograph.
The stallholder was delighted to have two tourists showing so much interest in her wares and happily allowed us to sample a number of the different flavours on offer. Ee eventually decided on one and bought a piece – but one that was half the size the stall holder thought we needed.
Believe it or not, we had to stock up on local produce again by the time the smaller market took place on Wednesday. Only, the weather wasn’t great. I don’t think I’ll ever forget running from stall to stall trying to avoid the gentle but persistent rain. Admittedly, we didn’t buy so much on that occasion, which was good because it meant we were able to hide out in a coffee shop and warm ourselves up with a hot drink and a crepe – yes, more sugar for the diabetic!
I wish the local produce market vibe was more common in South Africa. Sure, you can find the odd market for local organic produce here and there, but I guess I’ll have to wait till our next European trip to dive back into the wonderful local market culture that’s so prevalent there.
Having said that my primary interest in going to Normandy was to discover a little of the history of the area at the time of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry seemed a good place for me to start.
The Tapestry is a 70-metre-long embroidery depicting the story of what led up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the Norman army defeated the English army under the leadership of King Harold. It has 70 panels telling the story, although some of the details are ambiguous, even with a certain number of captions being included in the embroidery.
The basic story seems to show King Edward sending his duke, Harold to meet with William in Normandy. William and Harold collaborate together to fight a battle in Normandy and Harold is then shown swearing an oath to William, though we aren’t told what oath it was. Harold subsequently returns to England where he is crowned king following the death of Edward. William and his forces invade England upon hearing of the coronation and the Battle of Hastings is depicted. It’s thought that panels showing the coronation of William would have closed the story told by the tapestry, but these were lost.
The ambiguity arises from whether or not Edward intended for William or Harold to succeed him to the throne of England, and what oath Harold is seen to swear to William. In short, whether or not William’s invasion of England is a legitimate move to reclaim the crown that was promised him, making Harold a traitor. We can’t say for sure from what is shown in the tapestry, and history appears no clearer. I suspect the answer would have been considered to be obvious to all who saw the tapestry at the time but, sadly, we simply don’t know.
It’s thought the tapestry was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo, sometime in the 1070’s, perhaps for the dedication of the beautiful cathedral in Bayeux in 1077. While it’s not known for sure, it’s thought that the tapestry was stitched in England and brought to Normandy.
I want you to pause and consider that for a moment – the tapestry was created more than 950 years ago. It blows my mind when I think of how remarkable it is that it still exists, let alone that it’s almost entirely intact and undamaged.
To tell you a few of the exciting experiences the tapestry has survived, during the French Revolution it was ordered to be used as a covering for military wagons, and was only rescued from that fate by a local lawyer who hid it until the danger passed. Both Napoleon and Hitler seized control of the tapestry to use it for propaganda purposes, but it never left France and always eventually came home to Bayeux.
This year, the tapestry is scheduled to be lent to England, the first time in 950 years that it’s left France.
The tapestry is now kept in a sealed display case. Visitors walk the length of the case while listening to a detailed description of what they’re seeing in each frame. I would have loved to have been able to touch the tapestry and feel the ancient embroidery but know that wouldn’t have been possible – after all, considering all the tapestry has been through in it’s very long history, it would be crazy to expose it to any potential damage now.
I left the museum with a fair idea of what the tapestry looked like. I was also able to engage with other items in the museum, and run my fingers across modern embroideries showing a few extracts of the tapestry. Which was almost as good as touching the real thing.
It’s sad that most visitors who come to the museum view the tapestry and then leave without exploring the museum’s other exhibits. There’s far more to see – weapons and armour similar to those depicted in the tapestry, as well as other historic items from Normand times that are definitely worth a visit.
A final note on the museum where the tapestry is displayed. I was impressed that it is listed as being wheelchair accessible. There is a step-free entrance that avoids the flight of stairs up to the museum entrance, and the museum itself is step-free with elevators allowing access to all areas of the museum. –
All round, it was a thoroughly satisfying visit that allowed me to learn about a period of French and English history that I’ve never really studied. Well worth a visit!
So, now that we’ve arrived in Normandy, I guess the next important question is what we’re going to do while we’re there?
For my husband Craig, the obvious answer was to visit the sites of the WWII Normandy landings – not just the beaches themselves, although Omaha and Utah were easily within driving distance from where we were based. But the story of the allied landings encompasses far more than just the beach landings – the forces still had to move from the beaches and penetrate into the countryside to open the way to Paris. Normandy is an area that is rich in WWII history, as we discovered while were there, and we spent many fascinating hours tracing the history through several villages, museums, memorials and sites, accompanied by an informative audio tour of the area.
While I was also interested to visit the WWII sites, I’ll admit my main area of interest was in the earlier history of Normandy. I wanted to learn about the Normandy of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. And the magnificent Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of that invasion.
And, of course, we both wanted to sample some of the local specialties that Normandy is known for – salted caramel, camembert cheese, and the delicious apple brandy known as Calvados.
In the coming articles I’ll be sharing some of those experiences with you. But first, I want to tell you about an inspiring gentleman I had the privilege to interview on my travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling.
After a week in Paris our next destination was a town called Bayeux, in Normandy. Before I tell you all about it, I’d like to tell you a little about how we got there.
By far the most logical way to make the journey was by train. Except, you see, I’m terrified of train travel. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m fine once I’m on the train. What I’m actually scared of is navigating through noisy, busy train stations.
Navigating through a train station with trains screaming past me as they fly in and out of platforms, with the noise masking the sounds I would normally use to help me find my way, makes me extremely anxious. Even when I’m accompanied by a sighted guide who will prevent me from doing something crazy like hopping onto the wrong train, or falling off the platform,
On this trip, my anxiety was worse because we had two suitcases with us. Which Craig had to manage as we navigated our way from our Paris apartment, through two metro stations, a shopping centre, a train station, another train station, and finally to our apartment in Bayeux. All the time having to keep an eye on his nerve-wracked, blind wife, to make sure she didn’t do something stupid.
There were two things that helped me keep the anxiety under control. The first was to focus on just the next step of the trip, rather than being overwhelmed by the entire journey. That helped a lot, since I only had to deal with what was happening in the immediate future and then catch my breath before tackling the next stage. The other factor that made it easier was that I was more confident in how to use my white cane to help me get around, thanks to the mobility lessons I’d taken earlier in the year. And that made Craig’s task a little easier, since I was able to move around a lot more independently.
I don’t know if I’ll ever become totally comfortable navigating noisy train stations. But at least I know in future I’ll be able to manage my anxiety with my increased cane skills and by taking it one step at a time.