Friday, November 20, 2009

Normandie, La Voute, Chenonceau, Vezeley

We were back in France and heading for our chateau bed and breakfast.

Resized_HPIM3723We had realized, however, on the way home that the famous beaches of Normandy were only about a half an hour out of reach.

Both André and I have grandfathers that served in World War II and we knew we had to take the time to stop and see this famous site.  We drove over the flat land, passing wResized_HPIM3727hat looked like abandoned bunkers along the way.  When we reached the beach, the first thing we noticed were several people, with metal detectors, wandering around. 

Resized_HPIM3725 Wow!  I guess there must still be shrapnel and stuff that people dig up to sell as souvenirs, right?  We headed closer, passing a 3 foot thick pile of shells to see what was being dug up.  This beach was absolute shell heaven.  Once wResized_HPIM3729e got close enough, we realized they didn’t have metal detectors, they had rakes!  These souls were simply locals, out digging for clams.

This beach was incredibly flat and long.  Of course, I had to imagine people crawling over it, peppered with bombs.  Absolutely sickening.  War is just so ugly and so scary – I am very, very grateful I haven’t had to go to war – and pray the same for my children.  Of course, I ended up looking up D-Day and there is so much information out there it is simply overwhelming.  There is a good video at this site if you want to get some sort of perspective from the soldiers who served there.   Thanks as always also goes to There were over 160,000 troops who landed in this area on D-Day (June 4, 1944).  This quote shows the massive scale of this endeavor. “The objective of the operation was to make a lodgment that was anchored in the city of Caen (and later Cherbourg when its deep-water port was captured). As long as Normandy could be secured, the Western European campaign and the downfall of Nazi  Germany could begin. About 6,900 vessels were to be involved in the invasion, under the command of  Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay…, including 4,100 landing craft. A total of 12,000 aircraft… supported the landings, including 1,000 transports to fly in the parachute troops; 10,000 tons of bombs would be dropped against the German defenses, and 14,000 attack sorties would be flown.” This was the largest fleet assembled for battle in military history – and still is.

The attack, although heavy with casualties, eventually was deemed a success.  This was “the first successful opposed landings across the English Channel in over eight centuries.”   If you are curious, that battle 800 years ago was The Battle of Tinchebray, when Henry the First of England came in with his Norman knights and took over for about the next 200 years.

The funny thing about blogging is that sometimes what I am blogging about pops up in my regular life.  The Time magazine, my continuing link to US current events, of a few weeks ago had an article about a new history of D Day, by Antony Beever.  It mentions how 27 of the 32 specially designed Sherman tanks sank before they ever reached the shore and how the air offensive did not reach its targets during the initial assault.  It also talks about how, for weeks after the initial offensive, troops were desperately fighting on the ground.  They learned to fire into the tops of trees where the enemy hid, in order to rain down sharp splinters that would kill.  And, all this happened in a rural area of France where many people have never even seen a car, let alone paratroopers falling from the sky and hanging on the spires of their churches.   Over 3000 French civilians died in the first 24 hours of the attack, twice as many civilians as US soldiers.  I bet my father has purchased this book – history buff that he is – maybe I’ll borrow it someday.

Of course, we had a great time playing on the beach.  It amazes me how, at every beach, the sights and shells are unique.  I LOVE the spiral shaped one and tried to bring it home – but it turned out to be a whole group of little creatures joined together – that, sadly, died in my Tupperware….  Here are some shots.

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Notice, particularly, the last photo.  The tide was out and the beach was very muddy, the kids and I all had wet feet and pants, splattered with mud just from walking across this surface. But somehow, as you can see, André is completely untouched.  This happens all the time in our family – the kids and I are a mess and he is pristine.  I just don’t know how he does it!Resized_HPIM3758

We left the beach and headed over to our bed and breakfast at Chateau la Voute. It was a hard  drive and we didn’t get there until almost 9pm.  But the location was Resized_HPIM3747 lovely as you can see.  What a difference, though, between the full Irish breakfast we got  at the B and B there (porridge, eggs, sausage, bread, juice cereal) and the French one (bread, croissant, jam, tea).  Maybe there is a reason why the French don’t have a word for breakfast – literally translated petit-dejeuner means little lunch.

We were up in the top floor – they had a huge tub which I enjoyed using and when we walked up the steps to our rooms, they even had tapestries..  I can never see a tapestry  without thinking of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last CResized_HPIM3746rusade –where he breaks into the German hideout by using a ridiculous accent, pretending to be a Scottish lord looking at tapestries.  Thanks to for the hard to find quote:

Butler: Are you expected?
Indiana Jones: Don't take that tone with me my good man! Now buttle off and tell Baron Brunwald that Lord Clarence McDonald and his lovely assistant are here to view the tapestries.
Butler: Tapestries?
Indiana Jones: The old man is dense. This is a castle isn't it?  There are tapestries??
Butler: This is a castle and we have many tapestries, and if you are a Scottish lord then I am Mickey Mouse! (mayhem ensues)


Here are some shots of our rich surroundings.  The cool building, left, is a pigeon house – and see how the wall paper matches the fabric of the curtains in the photo far right?   That would only ever work in a real chateau. 



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Resized_HPIM3757 We headed off to the next stop – as you can see we didn’t even give Griffin time to put on his shoes. It was too bad we couldn’t relax longer at La Voute which was built during the reign of Louis XIV and had amazing grounds we would have loved to explore.  They had a history of the place, full of intrigue, including murder, family feuds and bankruptcies, and the cost for all 5 of us (2 rooms plus breakfast) was only 120 Euros. If you are ever in the area, their website is:  But we had to get going with about 5 hours of driving to reach home.  Of course, we didn’t want to miss the main event for our day – the Chateau de Chenonceau.  It is the second most visited palace in all of France.  The first is Versailles, which we already saw in April.  Frankly, Versailles didn’t impress me all that much – but I can honestly say that Chenonceau is by far the best castle we’ve ever visited.  Perhaps we didn’t appreciate the Irish castles as much as they so richly deserve since we are spoiled by French castles….. and look below – who can blame us?



There is a ton of Resized_HPIM3768information about Chenonceau since it has been of vital importance for almost 1000 years –Resized_HPIM3767 earliest records of it date from the 1100’s.  And let’s face it, the thing is freaking awesome.  It is built, literally, OVER  A RIVER.   The river Cher, to be  exact.  It used to be a mill and only the keep, shown right, remains of those days.  It is surrounded, not just by the river, but also by moats which are actually filled with water (most of the moats we’ve seen in the past are all dried up).  Supplies and visitors often arrived by boat.  This jewel is open to the public, along with its amazing gardens, for touring all year round.  There is lots of great information about it at  The amazing thing about the tour was that you could explore through it all over the place.  We saw the beResized_HPIM3788drooms, the kitchens, the libraries and hallways, and it was all so fascinating.


Resized_HPIM3771 The photo, left, is of the room we first entered.  I took the photo to show how the detailed tiles, that once covered the floor, have been literally worn away to almost nothing except along the edges of the room, and yet they still let us random tourists stomp on in.   At right you can see that this painting was actually built into the fireplace – it is as if the entire fireplace Resized_HPIM3778is a giant frame.  Visiting Chenonceau was like visiting an art museum.  They had amazing oil paintings all over the place and tons and tons of giant tapestries.  I told the kids how women used to sit around and sew these for hours and hours during the winter times.  (All the independent minded women in the historical trashy romance novels I read just hate embroidering on these things).  We wandered about through bedrooms and libraries.  In fact, many kings and queens have lived or at least vacationed in Chenonceau (I think it was kind of like, the French version of Camp David).  We got to go to the actual library where Catherine de Medici ruled France.  The ceiling in the library was made of elaborately-carved coffered oak – and, dating from 1525, it was one of the first coffered ceilings in all of France--beautiful. Then we headed down to the kitchens, which I guess hit closer to my life and reality since we took a ton of photos down there!

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Resized_HPIM3787 I love all the giant fireplaces, giant panniers to carry wheat sheaves, and the copper cookware.  During World WResized_HPIM3794ar I all of Chenenceau was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers and this is when more modern electricity and stoves were brought in, to serve the patients and staff.  I was happy to see, however, they hadn’t removed their amazing hand-wound rotisserie cooker, pictured left.  I absolutely love rotisserie and my favorite holiday meals as a kid were always when Mom would rotisserie our turkey.  I did a tiny bit of research and found claims that rotisserie wasn’t invented until the 1800’s – but this looked way older than that…. I wonder if it still works?   We explored further and found that during World War II, the River Cher actually corresponded to the line of demarcation and the gallery (which is the part of the castle that actually sits on the river) was used by the Resistance to help bring large numbers of people into the free zone.  Our brochure claims that throughout the war a German artillery unit was kept at Chenonceau, ready at any moment to destroy it.   Thank goodness it escaped, unharmed.








We spent sResized_HPIM3804ome time wandering around in the gardens.  The garden of Diane de Poitier is shown above. She was King Henry II’s faResized_HPIM3799vorite lady.  Henry donated Chenonceau to her in the mid 1500’s (nice gift, right?  I wonder what happened to whomever lived there before that.  I liked this formal Resized_HPIM3809garden far better than the one at Versailles and wish I could figure out how to zip my two photos together.  We also saw Catherine de Medici’s garden on the other side of the castle – all the gardens are raised in order to keep them safe from flooding.  But, by far, the best part of the  garden was the giant labyrinth.  This was planted under the orders of Catherine de Medici and, with 2000 yew bushes, covers more than one hectare of land.  It is  awesome. I am pictured standing at the center of it – with the giant caryatids (thiResized_HPIM3812s is people sculptured as column supports) behind me.  There was a great forest all around the castle as well and these really neat purple flowers were growing.  When I first saw them I thought they were some kind of confResized_HPIM3816used crocuses – but definitely not….. We took our leave down the path, all lined with giant sycamores – you can totally imagine royals, in their horse drawn carriages, riding up here to reach the castle.  What an amazing place!

We got back in the car, hoping to hit Vezeley by dinner time.  We passed this windmill – that looks like it belongs in Holland – on the way – turns out it is used as a grist mill.  Even though it was only about 3pm, we ended up stopping, exhausted, in Bourges for lunch/dinner at a brasserie.  All the regular restaurants had closed since it was past 2pm.  It was quite a challenge Resized_HPIM3818finding a place open.  At least we wandered by an excellent Resized_HPIM3826gryphon fountain along the way.  Brasseries are kind of like French for a diner – food was decent but the creme brulee was excellent, inspiring me again to think about making it. We didn’t even go into the  huge Bourges cathedral – which I now know (thanks, is one of the few Gothic cathedrals around that is not in a cruciform shape – it has no transepts.  This gives it a spectacularly giant nave – that I will never have a chance to see… boo-hoo!  But at least I still saw this local item of interest, provided free of charge by the local rotary – a defibrillator.  That’s right, if you plan to have a heart attack, have it here, in Bourges, at this location.  Someone (if they happen to have the proper training and are also there at the opportune moment) will be able to shock you back to life.  I mean, people are starving to death – can’t we spend our money on something other than street defibrillators?

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Resized_HPIM3827We drove on, through the rain, enjoying the excellent French roads.  I adResized_P031109_18.21mit, the roads could be a bit faster – but they are straight, and unrutted, and have shoulders and are just, well, safe!!!  What a relief!l We finally reached Vezelay, a city on a hill, which was primarily interesting due to its famous cathedral.  Luckily, it was still open at 6pm – but unluckily it was raining, cold and dark – so we couldn’t get a very good look at it.  The clear, sunny photo below is only thanks to Wikipedia.


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This is a very small town – only about 400 people live there – but was quite the hot destination during tFile:Nef de la basilique de Vézelay à 14h27 le 23 juin 1976.jpghe Crusades.  This church – La BasilResized_P031109_18.51ique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, actually is “one of the outstanding masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture” (thanks to  It was very beautiful inside and outside and it turns out that the two things we chose to photograph (the tympanum and the nave) are the most interesting, historically.  It turns out that, during the summer solstice, this place is aligned so that, with no natural lighting, the entire church is absolutely flooded with light due to the precise angle of all the windows – cool right!  Plus, there is an especially bright ‘path’ of light going right up the center of the church (you can see it right – thanks to wiki).  So, having been to Newgrange, we would be willing toResized_P031109_18.38 bet that this sacred site was, like Mt. St Michel and so many others, built right over the top of a dolmen.  Man, that is so very, very, cool.

As for the tympanum above the main door – it is significant because it is a series of biblical scenes and symbolism specifically chosen to provide a spiritual defense for the Crusades.  The description of this is quite fascinating – in fact, so much so that I must quote, yet again:

The lintel of the Vézelay portal portrays the "ungodly" people of the world. It is a depiction of the first Pentecostal Mission to spread the word of God to all the people of the world. The figures in the tympanum who have not received the Word of God are depicted as not fully human. Some are shown with pig snouts, others are misshapen, and several are depicted as dwarves. One pygmy in particular is depicted as mounting a horse with the assistance of a ladder. On the far right, there is a man with elephantine ears, while in the center we see a man covered in feathers. The architects and artisans depicted the unbelievers as physically grotesque in order to provide a visual image of what they saw as the non-believers' moral turpitude. This is a direct reflection of Western perceptions of foreigners such as the Moors, who were being specifically targeted by the Crusaders. Even Pope Urban II, in his call for a crusade, helped promote this ethnocentric perception of the Turks by calling on westerners to, "exterminate this vile race.” Most Westerners had absolutely no idea what the Turks and Muslims looked like, and they assumed that an absence of Christianity must coincide with repulsive physical attributes. It has also been argued that the disbelievers were carved as deformed monsters in an effort to dehumanize them. By dehumanizing their enemies in art, the Crusaders' mission to capture the holy land and convert or kill the Muslims was glorified and sanctified. The Vézelay lintel is, therefore, a political statement as well as a religious one.”

Did you catch that part about how the Westerners didn’t know what the Turks looked like and so assumed they were grotesque? It reminds me of how, during slavery in our country, people were encouraged to believe that blacks were less than human.  In other parts of the tympanum, it shows angelic figures – these represent those souls that have been saved by the word of God. In fact, though, this tympanum is different than others that still survive (only about 3 or 4 in the world) because the central figure of Christ, instead of being forbidding (which was the Romanesque way for Christ to be) is open armed and smiling.  This was to reassure those on the way to the Crusades that Christ was pleased with them and that their deeds were great.  In fact, you were guaranteed a spot in heaven if you went to the Crusades.  I have to say, I never much liked the idea of proselytizing (one of the many reasons I was never comfortable as a Mormon) but the Crusades were much more than just proselytization – involving tremendous resources and the death of thousands.  It seems that this church, which had been a place of pilgrimage since 882 when the holy remains of Mary Magdelene (another of my heros) were brought here from Provence but true fame only arrived in the 12th century during the Crusades when people came from all over to pass through this church.  Kings that came included Richard the Lionhearted, King Henry II, Philippe Augusst and Saint Louis.  Whoa….

Of course, (thank goodness) the Crusades wound down, pilgrimages also declined and the church lost its power and was not being maintained as it needed to be.  It was saved from utter ruin in around 1840 when the architect Viollet le-Resized_P031109_19.29[01]Duc, recognizing the importance of the Baslique, began restoration work.  Another interesting factoid about this place is that, in 1946, countries all over Europe, scarred by the World Wars, decided to run a Pilgrimage of Peace where people could travel all over Europe in a spirit of reconciliation and love.  Of course, Vezeley was chosen to be one of the sites for the pilgrims to, once again, stop and refresh on their long journeys.

Well our long journey draws to a close (finally!) but I just have to mention, before moving on, that this little town of Vezeley was, bar none, the best shopping place I have yet to see in my travels.  There were tons of little funky shops, handmade items, art and knickknacks and the prices were very reasonable.  I would recommend it to anyone!  Here is a window of one shop… amazing clothes!


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