Trip to Bayeux and to the Sea: Part One of My Normandy Chronicles

Friday, October 20, 2000. Sunrise arrives late in Paris this time of the year and it is still dark at 7:00 AM. The dreary weather enhances the darkness while the lights from cafes illuminate the early commuters on their way to work.

Negotiating our way past these men and women, we walk to the Gare St. Lazare to catch the train to Bayeux. A long stone staircase provides an obstacle for our luggage, especially for Don and Helen’s oversized suitcase that we call Big Bertha. We men manhandle it up to the second floor only to discover the escalator we no longer need. We find our train and the six of us settle into our reserved first-class compartment. Our journey will take about two hours and soon we are entertained by a group of French women in the next compartment. Their animated conversation is punctuated with gales of laughter that grows in volume and hilarity as they continue. We try to peek, but they have drawn the curtains and it is not until they prepare to detrain that we see them. Four plainly dressed middle aged women and we can only imagine what memories, thoughts or circumstances led them to carry on as they did.

The train continues onto Caen and then Bayeux.

 Anticipating difficulty with our luggage, Peggy made reservations at a hotel close to the station when she coordinated our trip. In the parking lot we see the “Hotel de la Gare,” for the first time. Resembling a rooming house more than a hotel, it is a rudimentary building constructed of wood and stone with oddly shaped rooms with and without bathrooms. Mary Ann and I draw a room that has its own bath as do Mike and Peggy. Helen and Don are not so lucky. The room rate is FF298 or $40 that includes a continental breakfast. We take to referring to this hotel as “The Fleabite.”

We eat lunch in town before visiting the museum that is home to the Bayeux Tapestry, the historical work of art that chronicles William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England. The lengthy tapestry is set in a continuous cabinet that meanders through several rooms Mary Ann and I rush through it but are a bit shocked to discover the fate of King Harold, the English king after he lost the Battle Hastings. It appears the victors played roughly back then as Harold was cut into sixes.

Don, Mike and I visit Bayeux’s World War II museum and note that the British liberated what remained of the city on June 7, 1944, one day after the invasion. Afternoon rain cancels our plan to visit the British cemetery. Oh well, it’s back to the fleabag bar.

That evening, we dine at the Hotel Notre Dame, a small, but charming hotel in the center of Bayeux. Peggy is familiar with this hotel. While planning the trip, she had investigated staying there, but found it difficult to contact them. When we arrive, the hotel manager greets Peggy profusely. Recognizing Peggy’s last name from the dinner reservations, she exclaims” Madam Cruise, I am so sorry that we did not communicate better and that you are not staying with us”.

She asks where we are staying and when Peggy tells her, I swear- I see her eyes cross as she attempts to keep her composure.

The funny thing is that both Mary Ann and I sleep soundly and only awaken when Don knocks at our door the following morning.

 After breakfast in the fleabite, we pack and bring our bags to the lobby. A local taxi service will transport them to the Hotel La Marine in Arromanches, eight miles away. Arromanches was the site of Gold Beach where British and Canadian forces landed on D Day. Unlike our luggage that take the easy way out, we plan to hike to the sea on a marked trail that runs between farmers’ fields. We quickly become adept at identifying trail markers, although we do become lost a few times. Fortunately, between our compass and the map, we regain the trail.

It is rainy season and mud is an issue, but we don’t let it discourage us. Hiking to the Normandy beaches is our goal and our adventure exceeds our expectations. Near noon time, we reach a town with a café serving ham, cheese and butter sandwiches on French bread with wine or Stella Artois on tap. Helen, who disdains butter, when confronted on this being her only choice, replies, “God wants me to have it.”

The afternoon offers us interesting encounters. We meet a group of men and women on horseback who dress in medieval costumes. They have just finished lunch served on folding tables by a man who dresses like a chauffeur or a waiter. Several empty wine bottles are in evidence. We discover their group are part of an equestrian rally set out to collect specific items and score points.

After climbing a rise, we come to a meadow elevated above the surrounding terrain. In the distance, we take in our first glimpse of the English Channel. Before we can react, nature trumps this view in a field adjoining the trail. Two calves have been born shortly before our arrival. The first calf has already risen to its feet and is trying to reach its mother to begin feeding. The second calf remains on the ground having difficulty standing up. First the mother nudges it, and when that doesn’t help, a second cow nudges the calf to provide encouragement. A third cow joins in and, after several more attempts, the calf succeeds in standing up. Quite a sight for us city people.

Finally, we reach the bluffs above Gold Beach and make our way down to the hotel. Our luggage has arrived in good order, and even though this is off-season, the hotel offers us a satisfactory dinner.

I decide that Calvados will be my after-dinner brandy of record for the remainder of this trip. Between the fatigue from today’s journey and the thoughts about walking the bluffs behind the beaches to Colleville, 12 miles  to the south, we call it a night.

“On the Outside Looking In,” will not publish on April  21st  and Part 2 of “My Normandy Chronicles,” will appear on April 28th.