France: Part 1: Normandy, Loire Valley, Atlantic Coast

Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel

Memories of my first visit to Paris come rushing back, whenever I encounter French art, wine or pastry. At the time, I was a grad student at the University of Reading in England, so my friends and I could not indulge in the finer luxuries that Paris had to offer. However, even on student’s budget my experience with Parisian culture, sites and flavors greatly impressed me.

Poppy fields

Poppy fields

I had the opportunity to visit Paris a second time with my family, when my daughter Geeta was three years old. Traveling with a toddler limited the opportunities for delving into nightlife or many museums, but we enjoyed our daytime walks through the different districts of Paris.

Coffee Eclair

Coffee Eclair

During our leisurely strolls along the streets of Paris, we developed a mutual appreciation for one particular Parisian specialty – éclairs. We just loved them! Geeta and I agree that we have not tasted another éclair anywhere to match the memorable taste of those Parisian éclairs.

This past spring, I decided that I should finally return to France. I had not been back to Paris in many years. Given my interest in food, culture and history,

Cathedrale Notre Dame, Rouen

Cathedrale Notre Dame, Rouen

I had a strong desire to explore the cuisine, wine and culture of France once again. Were they as wonderful as I remembered? Did the éclairs really taste that good? I needed to find out, so I began to lay out my plans for a long desired grand tour of France.

French art, Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley

French art, Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley

Originally, I planned to rent a car and drive around France for two to three weeks with my husband. And so I carefully researched out our itinerary, and the towns and villages we would visit along the way. But when that plan failed, I decided to visit my younger sister, Rama and her family in England first, and then to join a tour that would give me the taste of France I desired.

The tour schedule started in Paris that took us first through scenic Normandy to chateau Loire Valley, then south to gorgeous Provence and onward to the opulent French Riviera, and finally, through the Burgundy vineyards, back to Paris.

Vineyards

Vineyards

I had not taken a tour before and I was a bit nervous not knowing what to expect, but it turned out to be great as I met some wonderful people from different places. Also it was a small group of 15 and we got to know each other well, and it was not overwhelming and crowded in the coach. So overall, the trip was an enjoyable one.
I arrived in Paris and met the tour director and my fellow travelers in the evening at the hotel. The next morning a friendly driver greeted us at the coach. We were driving to Normandy. Originally I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Normandy or the north of France but I am so glad I went there because the area offered so much history and beauty.

Rouen Town, Normandy

Rouen Town, Normandy

Our first stop was at Rouen where we took a walk through its pretty neighborhoods, admiring its beautiful Gothic Cathedrale Notre Dame with its elegant spires and great architecture. As we walked by its shops and cafes, I was eyeing the pastries through the windows. I was just waiting for a break so I could enjoy a local pastry!

Rouen, Normandy

Rouen, Normandy

The town’s medieval quarter had been restored from the wars and bombing, especially with the heavy damage from World War ll. And it was in this city’s central square that the famous French 19 year old, Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and burnt at the stake by the English, in 1431. Looking at the spot where she died brought that historical period vividly to mind.

St. Joan of Arc Church, Rouen

St. Joan of Arc Church, Rouen

The St. Joan of Arc Church, built in 1979 (the building behind the cross) has a modern edge to it, symbolizing the flames that overtook Joan of Arc. It has a twisted style roof towards the center that is drawn into the sky….like a spaceship style structure. It was a surprise to see such a modern architecture surrounded by medieval buildings.
When we were given a lunch break, I walked through the fresh market looking to buy some local snacks. Such a feast of colorful fruits and vegetables, seafood, cheese and other local specialties, spread before us.

Market, Rouen

Market, Rouen

Then I walked further and found a lovely spot at an outdoor café to sit and finally enjoy some tea and my long desired chocolate éclair. It was heavenly… what I was waiting to do in France…enjoy an éclair…my first éclair! (mmmmm…. delicious, just as I remembered!)

Farms and Canola fields

Farms and Canola fields

We got back on the coach and drove through the Normandy countryside, passing through gorgeous yellow canopies of canola fields, medieval farms and following the calvados (apple brandy) signs, and heading towards the seaside area for our next stop, Hornfluer, a port where explorers once set sail for the New World.

Hornfleur, Normandy

Hornfleur, Normandy

What a charming town, with its picturesque brightly colored buildings, cafes and private sailing boats set along the old harbor. As we got off the coach, there was an artist painting the café scene in front of us. I stood behind him to admire his work….and imagined sitting next to him and painting ….. a passion of mine.

Hornfleur used to be a favorite with painters but recently has become a trendy town for Parisian jet setters during the summer time.
I walked towards the old town square to see the Eglise Ste-Catherine, a unique church built of wood during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Eglise Ste-Catherine Hornfleur

Eglise Ste-Catherine Hornfleur

The wood replaced the stone structure that was destroyed during the Hundred Years War. Across from the church is the wooden bell tower. I passed by some tents where cheese, quiches and fresh produce were being sold. I stopped to watch a couple of women making crepes. It reminded me of the stalls in Malaysia where dosas (rice and lentil based pancakes) were prepared except that the vendors in Malaysia were men!

It was a beautiful sunny day and I walked along the old harbor looking for a café to sit down and eat. I found an ideal spot facing the water, and enjoyed my moules mariniere (mussels with butter, garlic, white wine and herbs), with a glass of white wine…and watching people.

Moules marinara

Moules mariniere

Enjoying moules marinara

Enjoying moules mariniere

I normally don’t eat bread or butter served at restaurants in the US, but the bread there was so fresh and had a wonderfully addictive texture ….and the butter was so inviting! My neighbor was having moules au crème (mussels in a cream based sauce) and by looking at the smile on his lips I knew it must have been delicious too. As I was lifting the fork to eat the mussels, the friendly young waiter showed me how to eat the mussels the way locals do…using an empty clam shell to retrieve the inside of another. I savored the mussels and wine and enjoyed the view. And I mopped up the remaining sauce with the delicious bread. What a great lunch! I said to myself, “this is the first of many more to come!”

Coco Chanel's boutique, Deauville

Coco Chanel’s boutique, Deauville

Then we drove along the coast to the seaside town of Deauville, which has become a hot spot for the wealthy, with its trendy boutiques, deluxe hotels, a fancy casino, racetracks and manicured gardens.

Cabins along Deauville beach

Cabins along Deauville beach

Some of my mates (my co-Australians’ influence on me!) and I walked through the town to the beach area and along part of the 643 mile boardwalk. It was a windy and cold day but the sun was out and made it a pleasant walk. As we walked by the cabins along the boardwalk, we noticed they had famous American names…mostly movie stars. I was told that this town was home to a high profile American film festival.

We then drove to Caen for the night. Caen was ‘founded’ by William the Conqueror during the 11th century, and after its destruction (about 80%) during the 1944 battle of Normandy, it was rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s.

D-Day Landing Beaches, Normandy

D-Day Landing Beaches, Normandy

Next day we drove to the D-Day landing beaches where Allied troops (American, British and Canadian) landed during World War ll to fight the Germans. The fighting along the 80 km Normandy beach (code names were given to different parts of the beach) lasted for 76 days. We drove along the beach, passing by Sword beach (where the British infantry landed), Juno beach (where the Canadians landed), then to Gold beach, next, to Arromanches then to Longues-sur mer, and finally stopped at Omaha beach. Omaha beach is often referred to as “bloody Omaha” as it was the site of the worst fighting when the Allied troops landed on the beach in June 1944.
It was difficult and painful to imagine as we drove along the stretch of peaceful beach of golden sands, sand dunes, cliffs and summer homes, that this brutal war took place here.

War Memorial, Omaha Beach

War Memorial, Omaha Beach

At first I was hesitant to go to Omaha beach as I am not a proponent of war and disliked looking at war movies or anything to do with war. But out of curiosity I decided to go, and… what a powerful impact it had on me! Just walking through Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy and reading the profiles of the troops and watching the video of the war made me come to the realization that I had really no inkling of what happened here. However my feelings against wars, I felt rather emotional as I watched the video. I walked outside and looked at the American War Cemetery and, as I walked towards it I could not come to grips with walking around the soldiers buried there. I left the place and walked sadly towards the coach, waiting for us.

Lunch-galette and calvados

Lunch-galette and calvados

We then went to have lunch at Arromanches-les-Bains along the water. I walked the one strip road, scouting among the casual beach-like cafes and restaurants, looking for an interesting café to have galette and calvados. I went into one that seemed friendly and ordered a galette, or known as Breton galette (typical of Brittany and Normandy), a crepe made from buckwheat flour. There are many variations of galette, garnished with egg, ham, cheese, meat, fish, cheese,  vegetables, apple slices, berries or even hot dog. I had smoked salmon and cheese galette with a non-alcoholic calvados. Since we passed by so many farms and places around with signs of calvados I had to try one…but being quite early in the day I decided on a non-alcoholic one as I wanted to be awake for the next stop, Bayeux. Calvados is distilled from cider, made from apples. It had a light and sparkling taste with a slight tartness. After my lunch I walked around to see the stores and shops selling local tee shirts, sweets, calvados and other interesting local curios. The Musee de Debarquement is here, an information center about D-Day for tourists.

Bayeux, Normandy

Bayeux, Normandy

Next we drove south to Bayeux, the first town to be liberated after D-Day and where the famous tapestry museum is. It’s11th century Bayeux tapestry has 58 scenes that tell the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. I walked along its cobblestoned road, and by 13th to 18th century style buildings, to a spectacular Gothic cathedral, the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux.

"Couple in Embrace', Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Bayeux

“Couple in Embrace’, Cathedrale Notre Dame, Bayeux

It has a beautiful architecture of Norman-Romanesque style with beautiful stained glass windows, and, as I walked inside, I was intrigued to see up on a pillar two small figurines, from the 12th century (referred to as the Bayeux lovers), a couple in embrace that symbolized fidelity.

The figurine is locally referred to as “an interlaced man and woman who block each other’s ears to resist temptations and keep loyal to their inner voices”.

Then I entered a lace-making workshop where women (who I was told were noted lace makers in France) were at work making intricately designed lace works that are traditional Norman.

Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel

After Bayeux, we drove towards Mont St-Michel, a place I was eagerly waiting to see. The coach stopped at a short distance from it, where lambs were grazing on pastures around the bay. We got off the coach to get a view of its silhouette from afar, a hauntingly beautiful image! This monastery stands on an island and is reached through a narrow causeway (a bridge is being built to replace this). I took photos of this enigmatic monastery, with its slender towers and turrets arising from the abbey, and reaching into the sky. Its abbey emerges from the rock and the whole place looks like a fairy tale scene! The bay around Mont St Michel has extreme tidal variations and we were here at its low tide so mounds of sand and mud surrounded it. It was constructed in a feudal style hierarchy with God, the abbey and monastery on top, the great halls below, then stores and housing, and at the bottom, outside the walls, the housing of the workers, fishermen and farmers.

The Abbey, Mont St. Michel

The Abbey, Mont St. Michel

We entered through a gateway to a narrow cobbled path lined with pretty shops and boutiques. As we walked up the steps towards the abbey, the steps became steeper and spiral. It was an amazing place! There is a chapel at the summit of the abbey that a bishop built as a sanctuary in honor of the winged archangel Michael, whose gilded figure crowns the tip of the abbey’s spire.

Archangel Michael

Archangel Michael

For Christians, Saint Michael fights and defeats the dragon, the symbol of the devil. St. Michael is believed to be the head of the heavenly militia. The Benedictines settled in the abbey in the 10thcentury while a village grew below its walls. It was turned into a fortress for the people and which withstood the English assaults during the 100 Years War. The people believed the archangel Michael protected them from the invaders.

We walked up dark alley rooms to the top floor where the view was amazing.

View at top of abbey, Mont St. Michel

View from top of abbey, Mont St. Michel

Cloister of abbey, Mont St. Michel

Cloister of abbey, Mont St. Michel

Then we walked down, to the open cloister with Moorish like arches and a beautiful garden in its center. It felt a relief from the claustrophobic corridors and gloomy dark rooms. As I climbed down from the abbey, I entered a store to buy a magnet curio. Here I encountered an unfriendly and rude sales woman! I encountered this behavior a couple more times, at the central store, and a bar-restaurant near our hotel. I was surprised that a tourist spot as well known as this …and even more so a pilgrimage site, to encounter rudeness and discourteous service.

Salted meadow grass fed lamb chops, Mont St. Michel

Salted meadow grass fed lamb chops, Mont St. Michel

We drove to our tiny hotel outside Mont St-Michel where there were also other hotels, restaurants and a central store. For dinner, a few of us went across to a restaurant to try the local lamb fed on salted meadow grass, which reputedly has a unique taste. I ordered lamb chops which tasted quite delicious…. but the dessert was even better!

Delicious dessert

Delicious dessert

Our next destination was Amboise in the Loire valley and on the way we made a lunch stop at Laval and then headed to Angers to see the chateau. At Angers, which is the western gateway to the Loire valley, we passed by homes and buildings with dark slate roofs till we arrived at the chateau up a hill.

Chateau d'Angers, Angers

Chateau d’Angers, Angers

It was an impressive dark stone chateau that has 17 huge watchtowers and battlements. Once the seat of power for the Counts of Anjou, this chateau also houses the Apocalypse tapestry (Tenure de l’Apocalypse). I admired it from the outside and then walked towards an art museum and a cathedral, passing by a museum with sculptures (also home of David d’Angers, a renowned French sculptor) and some artsy shops.
We arrived in Amboise in the Loire valley and got ready to eat at a prearranged local French restaurant to sample some local Loire Valley flavors. Les Remparts, a family owned restaurant had a somewhat cozy interior and friendly staff.

Tarte tartin

Tarte tartin

Rilette de canard

Rilette de canard

I enjoyed my meal-an appetizer that I am not familiar with, rilette de canard (seasoned duck meat cooked slowly in fat until tender, then shredded and cooled to form paste-like shreds, and served as spread on bread), chicken made with local Chinon wine as entrée, and for dessert, tarte tartin (apples caramelized in butter and sugar and then baked) topped with vanilla ice cream. Though the meal was satisfactory, I had a wonderful evening getting to know my fellow travelers.

The Loire Valley is dotted with numerous chateaus and wineries. The French royalty and nobility built castles and fortresses with moats since the 11th century and the chateaus have a treasure trove of rich architectural details. These castles were expressions of the elites’ wealth and power. During the 100 Years War, the Loire Valley marked the boundary between the English and French forces and later became the center of French court life. It is fertile lowland so vineyards abound. Some of the wines I am familiar with such as Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Vouvray, Chinon, Cabernet Franc and sparkling wines are made here. For the wine enthusiast, there is a great wine trail along the Loire Valley, the Sur la Route des Vins de Loire, which I would have loved to take.

Chateau Chenonceau, Loire Valley

Chateau Chenonceau, Loire Valley

The next morning after breakfast we visited Chateaux Chenonceau, an elegant Renaissance style chateau with beautiful gardens and landscaped park area. It is referred to as the ‘Ladies Chateau’ (Le Chateau des Dames) as it was the work of many prominent women, including Katherine Briconnet (wife of King Charles VIII), Diane de Poitiers (mistress of King Henry ll),Catherine de Medicis (King Henry ll’s widow) and Louise of Lorraine (wife of King Henry lll). Later, during the 18thand 19th centuries, the aristocratic women, Louise Dupin and Marguerite Pelouze took over, while during World War l and ll, the war heroine, Simone Menie, helped the resistance here.

Inside Chateau Chenonceau

Inside Chateau Chenonceau

The inside of the chateaux has grand tapestries, fabulous art and wonderful furniture…and I cannot leave out the beautifully arranged fresh flowers as center pieces in each room…they just caught my eye whenever I entered a room. This chateau has a fascinating history and as I walked from room to room, each had a story to tell…of battles fought, of secret affairs and romances, or of marriage alliances. I was transported to those eras in these rooms….and it connected for me in a visual way to the history books and novels I had read or seeing movies from that era. Then I walked out to the huge gardens and did some walking around. What opulence and grandeur existed with the royalty and the aristocrats!

Painting, Chateaux Chenonceau

Painting, Chateaux Chenonceau

As our coach was going along the Loire valley, I was fascinated with the homes built into the cliffs. These are troglodytes, caves that have become homes and natural cellars for wine, vegetables and fruits.

Troglodyte wine cellar,

Troglodyte wine cellar,

These creamy white tufa cliffs along the Loire Valley took me back to the Utah area in Southwest U.S. and Cappadocia in Turkey where cave cultures thrived and in some, still do. We went for wine tasting to a troglodytes wine cellar. It was cool inside and as the guide was taking us deeper into the cave I opted not to go further in as it felt claustrophobic. That was where their wine was made and stored.

After tasting some wines, we left for Amboise for lunch. Amboise is the home of Charles Vlll and the burial place of the famous painter, Leonardo da Vinci, who designed the double helix staircase at Chateau Chambord. Amboise is where many a royalty were raised as children including King Charles Vlll. It also became the residence for four years for the captured prisoner of Algeria, Emir Abd al-Kader, before being freed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Salad de canard, Amboise

Salad de canard, Amboise

Amboise is a pretty city with lots of boutiques and stores. I walked around and found a little café to have salad de canard (duck prosciutto which is thin slices of smoked duck breast with salad veggies and red wine vinegar and mustard dressing) with a glass of wine. It was so relaxing to sit and watch passers-by. By then I was getting addicted to the café culture in France.

Here we went to see another castle, the Chateau de Chambord, the largest and grandest chateau that overlooks Amboise.

Chateau de Chambord, Amboise

Chateau Royal D’ Amboise

Chateau de Chambord at night

Chateau de Chambord at night

The previous night we were across the river and it was lighted up and looked picture perfect. From its terraces we had a panoramic view of the Loire Valley with its 15thand 16th century buildings and sloping gardens. There is a white bust of Leonardo da Vince on the Chateau gardens.

Inside Chateau de Chambord

Inside Chateau de Chambord

Chateau Royal D’Amboise is the first architectural expression of Renaissance in the Loire Valley…combining French tastes with Italian artistry and engineering (Italy was coveted by the French during the 16th century). Literary men, engineers, architects, gardeners and artists from Italy were invited, including Leonardo de Vinci who left his mark on this Chateau. He was buried on the grounds, at St. Hubert’s Chapel in 1519.

Gallery, Chateau de Chambord

Gallery, Chateau de Chambord

Troglodyte home, Amboise

Troglodyte home, Amboise

After this tour, we were given a break on our own so I took a walk up the lane that had several troglodyte homes. They were fascinating and some prettily decorated. As I stopped in front of one to take a photo, the owner was courteous and invited me to take a closer at his home and to take a photo

These homes he said were rather expensive and only the wealthy can afford them now. I returned to the café square and sat down to have tea and my favorite in France…some local pastries…and to recapture the day!

Next day we headed towards La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, driving through Poitiers. We stopped briefly at Poitiers and I bought another favorite snack of mine…croissant, and walked around on its cobblestoned central area, taking in its buildings and its cathedral. Then we arrived at La Rochelle, where The Knights of Templar had their base.

859Being from New Rochelle, I was excited to see La Rochelle, as this is where the Protestant French Huguenots came from (La Rochelle was the center of the Huguenots). La Rochelle traded with the New World and when they were persecuted and expelled by the Catholic hierarchy, many set sail for the New World. In the 17th century during the French Wars of Religions, many fled to settle in Nova Scotia in Canada, and the US, including Texas, and my hometown, New Rochelle.

La Rochelle

La Rochelle

La Rochelle was also the backdrop for some of the stories of The Three Musketeers, by the novelist Alexander Dumas. Known as the White City (La Ville Blanche) because of its limestone facades illuminating in the sunlight, La Rochelle was once a busy trading port from the 14th to the 16thcentury. We walked along the fortified old harbor, referred to as Vieux Port with its busy quayside where fancy boats, both large and small were anchored and the seaside area lined with numerous lively cafes, bars and restaurants serving fresh seafood. I stopped to look at some artists painting the marina.

Lunch, La Rochelle

Lunch, La Rochelle

For lunch, as was recommended by our tour director, some of us walked toward a boat along the water that was converted into a take-out restaurant. I ordered fried sardines that came with a piece of delicious crusty bread….a simple lunch, but fresh and delicious. We sat on tables by the water and I enjoyed my lunch while feeling the salty cool sea breeze. After finishing lunch I took a walk around the town but everything was closed being Sunday and so I returned to the seaside again, passing by numerous vendors set up along the marina. The locals were out too, enjoying the marina and cafes.

We drove westwards through champagne and wine country to the Cognac region and visited the Hennessy Museum. Cognac is distilled brandy that is twice distilled in copper pots and aged at least two years in French oak barrels. Here we got a tour of how cognac (made from white wine from a blend of grapes) is created by a master blender who blends it from different wines aged in oak barrels. I was told the quality of a cognac depends in the quality of its eaux-de-vie(or “water of life” as this is where the aromas and taste sensations are created) from the double distillation of wines or fermented grapes. At the end we had cognac tastings. I am not a lover of cognac but the production and blending was interesting.

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Categories: Featured, France, Journeys, Tastes, Traditions

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6 Comments on “France: Part 1: Normandy, Loire Valley, Atlantic Coast”

  1. maria mercedes bejarano
    August 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Thanks for sharing .GRACIAS !! Beauty all around ! I loved your photo eating mussels ! YES!!

  2. August 29, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    Gracias Maria,,..my ardent fan!

  3. Anne gruppo
    September 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    Thanks for bringing me back to one of my favorite countries. And, of course, my mouth was watering while I read!

  4. carol jordan
    September 3, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    Great blog Susheela….you really bring the region to life with your beautiful photographs and interesting commentary. And yes what about that French butter….the butter from Nomandy is probably the best on the planet, in my humble opinion.

    • September 4, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      Thanks Carol…I love taking photos. And you are absolutely correct about the butter there. I think its what the cows graze on.

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