July 2019 New Hampshire Notes Special Edition


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France, a country rich in historic events, distinctive culture, quirky art, delicious foods, and intriguing wines has been singing her siren song to me for several years.   In June, I was able to begin exploring Brittany and Normandy with Country Walkers.  What an adventure!  Here are a few highlights:

Arriving in Paris, I quickly realized that many thousands of people from all over the world had also listened to France’s come hither invitation.  It’s a city teeming with activity.  Pedestrians, motorcycles, and cars all race to get somewhere, even if only to circle the Arc de Triomphe at top speed.  

1However, we were soon away from the Paris bustle and enjoying the beauty of Normandy.  Our first stop was at a family-owned estate to learn more about apple cider and Calvados and to experience some of the delicacies of the region. In the United States, cider is non-alcoholic apple juice.  In France, currently the largest cider-producing country in the world, cider is an alcoholic beverage and a yummy one at that. 

The apples are not picked from the trees but rather are harvested in September when they are sweetest and, in their ripeness, fall to the ground.  After going through several extraction and distilling processes, the cider is bottled.  Further distilling cider and aging it in oak barrels produces the apple liqueur, Calvados. Aging time ranges from 2 years to over 10.  As the manager said, “We work today for tomorrow.”  A rather useful motto, for both farmers and urbanites!

Another stop was the iconic Mont Saint-Michel.  For the French, the Mont represents a symbol of their national identity.  In long wars with the English, it was never conquered.  Although mostly used as a monastery, it became a prison after the French Revolution in 1789 and was used as such until 1863 when it again became monastic.  Although fewer than 30 people live on the island now, three million people visit each year.

2Pilgrims and visitors have been traveling there for centuries.  According to legend, St. Michel appeared to the bishop in a nearby town and commanded him to build a church on the rocky island.  The original buildings were in the Roman style.  Later centuries brought Gothic influences.  Seen from afar, the tall church spire looks like a tiny dot that gradually grows bigger and more magnificent  with each passing mile.  

Two times a day, the tides rush in and surround the granite rocks and walls of the island.  Until a causeway was built in recent times, the timing had to be right to successfully get to and from St. Michel’s Abbey. The low-tide sands can be treacherous; quicksand can swallow the unwary.  If you get caught in quicksand, I’ll give you a tip: don’t struggle as you’ll only sink deeper.  Simply pretend you are climbing stairs (if you’re not too terrified to remember this) and you will gradually come back to the top. 

Once on the island, tourists thread their way through narrow streets surrounded by stone buildings holding shops and eateries then climb up to the Church itself.  The visit to the actual church is not for the faint of heart as there are two to three hundred stairs to climb, depending on your route.  The day we visited, France was in the middle of a heat wave and even the sea gulls (nesting time for them) were squawking their irritation.  

3Another highlight of this trip was a visit to the beaches on the Norman coast, a trip back in time to D-Day, 1944.  Lucy, our historian guide for this day, provided a map drawn in the sand and detailed descriptions of preparations and events.  Although we know the outcome of those battles, we stood on the sands looking at what still remains of the fortifications and landing machinery and felt the invasion days come alive through her anecdotes. 

Lucy has gone back to various reunions of the veterans and spoke especially of one man, now in his late 80’s, who told her he drove a tank onto the beach that June day.  He had to drive over some of his comrades, both dying and dead, and said, “I wasn’t killed on the beach that day, but I died there.”  I left the beach with grim feelings, a visceral clenching about the horrors of battles, and that quote.

Our day concluded with a trip to the American Cemetery where over 9,000 young men are buried.  There is also a section in the cemetery dedicated to the German soldiers who died there.  They too were serving their country and also left behind many people who loved them. 

I found this letter more difficult to write than previous Special Editions as there was SO much I wanted to share.  What about our hike into the charming city of Honfleur and our visit St. Catherine’s Church built by shipbuilders?  Or our ride through Le Harve and our admiration for the city which rebuilt itself after being largely destroyed during WWII and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  And what about the amazing embroidered tapestry in Bayeux where we saw the story of William the Conqueror and the battles of 1066?  That embroidery on linen was over 70 yards long! So instead of writing more, I’ll conclude with a few pictures.  Enjoy!

The tide is out at Mont St. Michel.
Remember I said that Mont St. Michel was once used as a prison?
In order to transport supplies to the top, prisoners walked in this giant gerbil wheel attached to chains that pulled the necessities up the steep hills.
France had some of the best lettuce I’ve ever tasted. And, of course, deliciousness didn’t stop there. There were crepes, seafood, caramels…you get the picture.
Some of the beautiful sights along the coast of Brittany.
Then there was the art. That green wall is actually filled with living plants as part of a hotel conference room. The statue stood proudly as part of a highway decoration.
And finally there is this delightful little booklet. It’s little guide for staying young filled with recommendations. It was on a stand in a truck stop shop where our 7-11 stores put Items like Cheetos. Vive la France!

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