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…
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.
Craig and I have a tradition. When we travel to a new country, we buy a small flag of whatever country we’ve been to. These flags are displayed in our indoor braai room –barbeque, for those who aren’t South African. So far, we’ve collected around 20 flags.
This begs the question of why our recent trip was to France, since we’ve already been there and have a flag.
The decision came out of a marathon that Craig wanted to do. It was a marathon through the winelands of Bordeaux, with an amazing array of food and wine at the various water tables. If I’m honest, it sounded almost good enough for me to consider taking up running as well. Almost, but not quite! Anyway, Craig didn’t manage to get an entry for that race, but by then we’d already started chatting about what else we could do when we were in France.
Another factor that played a role in the decision was that both Craig and I are fascinated by history. Granted, my interests focus more on ancient history while Craig tends to enjoy both ancient and modern history. As such, it seemed like Normandy would satisfy both of us – the ancient history being that of William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, and the more recent history of the Allied landings in Normandy towards the end of WWII.
Okay, we also wanted a slightly smaller French flag than the one we had, since our collection – shown in the photographs – is becoming quite full. But that was only a secondary consideration.
And so it was that we spent time in France – a week in Paris and 10 days in Normandy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few highlights… and lowlights… of our wonderful trip with you.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to add another new flag to our collection next time we travel. But that remains to be seen – we haven’t started planning our next trip yet.
PS: How many of the flags can you identify? Sorry, no prizes for correct answers.
When I was in high school I went through a protracted phase of devouring any novel or movie I could lay my hands on that was set during WWII. Even now, every now and then I’ll settle down to enjoy a book that’ll take me back to this period in history.
So it’s no surprise that I was excited to have the opportunity to visit Berlin as the final destination on my recent travels. I know Berlin has a much richer history than just what’s happened over the past hundred or so years, which was reinforced when we took a walking tour of Berlin’s history. But somehow I’m never been as fascinated by the city’s more ancient history.
As I walked the streets of the city that had witnessed the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime and had subsequently become such a symbol of the divided East and West, I found my imagination being triggered into memories of things I’d read or seen in movies. I’ll admit it was both exciting and a little daunting.
In the next few Blind Tourist articles I’ll share a few of my most memorable experiences of Berlin. Starting next time with my first startling realization of how Berlin’s experiences have shaped her geography.
I usually try to find out about a city before going there. Learning a city’s story helps me build an impression of what I might find when I arrive. And then I use my experiences in that city, and all that I learn from my other senses, to build a more complete picture.
That wasn’t possible when we went to Wroclaw. We only planned to go to the city later in our trip. Our plans changed when the weather in our next proposed destination, Zakopane – a small but beautiful ski resort in the mountains outside Krakow – was dismally unpleasant. So we went to Wroclaw instead. Which is a very long and complicated way of saying that I had done no research on the city.
I was delighted when we took a tour on the river Oder and discovered our skipper/guide was a goldmine of information of the history of his city. More than that, since we were the only passengers on the boat, we were able to ask questions and dig deeper into any aspects that intrigued us.
Here’s my potted recent history of Wroclaw, based on what I learned from our guide:
Wroclaw has a fascinating recent history. It only became a Polish city when Europe was carved up following WWII. Previously it was a German city named Breslau, with a strongly German population. When the new borders were confirmed, there was an almost total population change – the Germans left (or in some cases were forcibly removed) and the city became populated by Polish nationals.
After WWII, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviet Union. The underground anti-communist organizations Fighting Solidarity and Orange Alternative were founded in Wroclaw. Orange Alternative used an image of a dwarf to help members find their way to secret meetings, and the dwarf symbol has now been adopted in a wonderfully unique way – but more on that in my next article.
With the fall of Soviet power in 1989, Poland started becoming the friendly, fun and dynamic country Craig and I enjoy visiting. Which doesn’t mean everything in Wroclaw has gone smoothly…
In 1997, the river Oder flooded with devastating effects – it was the worst flooding in post-war Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. About one-third of the area of the city was flooded and took huge amounts of time and money to repair.
Nowadays the city has a population of around 1 million, with almost 130 000 students studying at the university, which gives it a very youthful population.
After our river tour we started exploring the city on foot. As we visited interesting buildings, sampled the city’s markets and eateries, and engaged with people, I was struck by how young and cosmopolitan the city is.
While Wroclaw isn’t a hugely popular tourist destination, we encountered tourists from several countries and heard different languages and dialects. I found most people friendly and happy to chat about the city to an inquisitive tourist (me) which leads me to agree the city motto is an apt one: Wroclaw – The Meeting Place.
I’m not sure I’d go back to Wroclaw to stay for an extended period of time, but I would be very tempted to go back to meet more of the Wroclaw dwarves – which I’ll tell you about in my next article!
The images show a view of the river Oder taken on our tour, and a shot of one of the busy outdoor markets in the main square of Wroclaw.
Note: My use of the term dwarf is not meant as an offensive and non-politically correct reference to persons of small stature; it is the term used by the city itself – and I’ll explain more in my next article.
Those of you who know the Oedipus myth will understand one of the reasons for the title of this article. For those who don’t, a crossing of roads plays a rather significant part in the Oedipus story… well, actually a three-way stop, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me the liberty.
According to the myth, Oedipus was raised as a prince of Corinth, not knowing his real parents had abandoned him in the wilds since it was foretold he would kill his father. Fate being what it is, the baby was saved and raised in nearby Corinth where he grew up and promptly went on to kill his father in one of the earliest incidents of road rage at that fateful intersection of two roads.
Craig and I visited Corinth on our recent trip to Greece. As I walked round the ruins my mind was filled with images of a young Oedipus running and playing on the same streets where I was walking.
Craig, it seemed had his mind on a completely different subject. I was utterly stunned when he expressed his awe at being in a place where St Paul had preached to the young Christian congregation.
What? Wait a moment… Oedipus and St Paull associated with the same ancient site? Amazingly, I’d never made the connection that the letters to the Corinthians written by St Paul were to citizens of the same Corinth where Oedipus had supposedly grown up.
So that’s the other reason for the title of this article – Corinth is the place where two ancient stories intersect.
If you want to know how Oedipus came to kill his father and what happened next… Well, gooble is your friend!
Okay, so perhaps I didn’t go island hopping for 10 years like Odysseus did on his way home from the trojan War as described in Homer’s The Odyssey, but I felt my recent trip to Greece was no less of an an epic adventure than that great work!
Over the next few weeks I’m going to share some of my experiences from my trip, but I thought I would start off with a very brief overview of what I loved most about my extraordinary experience of being a blind tourist in Greece.
As someone who studied ancient history at university I’ve always been drawn to Greece because of it’s depth of history and myth. This time around I had the opportunity of visiting a number of ancient sites both in the Peloponnese and in Athens itself. The impression that remains with me is of how closely intertwined ancient and modern are in Greece – you can be driving down a modern highway and suddenly find a 5th or 6th century BCE (before common era) stone bridge right alongside the highway… or you can be following (fairly vague) signs to an ancient tomb and find yourself walking through a commercial farmer’s orange grove. At times it feels a little surreal – as if you’ve time travelled between one step and the next. But it’s also great that the sites are so accessible to those who are interested in taking the time to see them – and I’m not using the term accessible with reference to my blindness here.
Having said that, I found Greece very good generally from the perspective of disability accessibility. In all but one ancient site both Craig and I were admitted free of charge, in the archeological museum in Athens I was given a very special tour (more about that in a future post), and I was impressed to see that there was a well-constructed and easily accessible wheelchair ramp at the Temple of Poseidon (more on that in future as well).
I also loved the Greek culture. I found the people friendly and gregarious and felt very much at home with their way of life that is so outdoors based – food is often eaten outdoors or on balconies. And, talking of the food – wow! As a fussy vegetarian I sometimes struggle to find local culinary fare that I’ll eat… at times I’ve had to resort to hot chips or a plain cheese and tomato sandwich if I wanted to survive on an overseas trip… but not in Greece – there is an amazing array of delicious food, both meat and vegetarian, for any Greek visitor to choose from. In fact, there were times that my problems stemmed more from the overwhelming number of scrumptious options arrayed before me and my inability to settle on just one or two!
I’ll be sharing a lot more detail in the next few weeks, but hope this has given you just a taste of what an amazing experience my trip to Greece turned out to be… “stay tuned” for more photographs and stories of my trip!