As I was browsing a postcard rack one August afternoon in Bayeux, France, a shopkeeper started to chat. Most Americans, she told me, arrive in Paris for a few days, take a trip north to see the Normandy beaches, and then return home. “There’s a lot more to France,” she proposed, and wouldn’t I agree? “Yes,” I answered. It was my sixth time in her country, I offered, and still, there was much to see.
On this particular trip, my husband and I were visiting my daughter-in-law’s family in Brittany — northwest France. One should remember that this part of the country took the brunt of D-Day. The war is evident in areas where a few blocky, modern buildings are reminders of the carnage. Yet, there are many lovely cities that appear untouched, like the medieval Breton town of Dinan on the River Rance. Nearby, the picturesque port city of Saint-Malo is largely restored to its pre-war splendor. It is currently having its moment due to the book All the Light We Cannot See.
We learned a little about the rivalry between Brittany and Normandy during our stay. One issue is a general dispute about which region should claim the 1,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site Mont-Saint-Michel. Another is what kind of butter should be the staple in a household: salted or unsalted. Bretons prefer the former. The over-arching rivalry originated with the 1064-65 war between the Duchy of Brittany and the Duchy of Normandy.
Before journeying on, we visited the tidal island Mont-Saint-Michel at dusk, when the ancient town on the hill was etched by colored lights. The tide came in and temporarily swamped our exit. Fortunately, to leave we didn’t have to wade into the quicksand that surrounds the island.
Very near the north coast of Normandy is the well-preserved town of Bayeux. Among its many assets is a Romanesque/Gothic cathedral, consecrated in the year 1077. We spent part of a morning there, and then in the museum dedicated to one of France’s greatest treasures — the Bayeux Tapestry. This 231-foot-long piece recounts the story of William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. The 954-year-old “tapestry” is presented in a long, glass enclosure housed in a darkened room. It consists of 58 scenes embroidered in colored yarn on linen. Astonishing.
A bus or cab can take travelers without a car or a pre-arranged tour to the D-Day attractions from Bayeux. In addition to the beaches where the Allies landed, you can visit the moving Military Cemetery, the Omaha Beach Museum, German fortifications, and a myriad of battle sites. The Les Braves sculpture on Omaha Beach is best appreciated by walking around it. As you view it from different angles, its shapes change in the most dramatic ways.
Having studied Monet’s many paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, I’ve yearned to visit Rouen, the capital of Normandy. The Cathedral itself is a marvel. Its carved stone façade is almost lace-like with intricate detail. The building’s 15th-century “Staircase of the Booksellers” is an unexpected feature in a sacred setting.
You can view the very spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen’s main square. The modernist church built on the site seems out of place in the old city, but its interior is glorious.
Reims and Amiens in Northern France also have exemplary cathedrals. And on the border with Germany, there’s Strasbourg Cathedral, one of many magnificent Gothic cathedrals scattered across France. I harbor a quest to explore them all.
Sainte-Chapelle (1113 AD) in Paris is a must-see. Be sure to spend time listening with a headset to commentary explaining the exquisite stained glass. The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis, in a northern suburb of Paris, contains the tombs of the Kings of France and the resting place of Marie-Antoinette. For more burial sites, visit the 110-acre Père Lachaise in the heart of Paris. The graves of Chopin and The Doors singer Jim Morrison are big draws.
Vincent Van Gogh spent his last 70 days in the quaint town of Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s a quick train trip from Paris. We visited the room where Van Gogh lived and died, and we lunched on cheese and crème brûlée downstairs in the Auberge Ravoux, where Van Gogh took his meals. While making our way to the town cemetery, we witnessed black crows swooping low over the nearby wheat fields, recalling a scene from the artist’s most iconic painting. Not far from the church of Notre Dame-de-l’Assumption, commemorated by Van Gogh in a painting of cobalt blue, the artist and his brother Theo rest side by side in modest graves.
Our only excursion south of Paris on this trip was 50 miles via train to Chartres. The Gothic flying buttress was invented there in 1180. In Our Lady of Chartres, the choir screen of carved figures took 200 years to complete. Astonishing! We spent the afternoon viewing the church, enjoyed a particularly excellent trout dinner at nearby Café Bleu, and returned afterward to explore Our Lady in the soft candlelight that sets a church aglow after dark. Tourist towns and their sites adopt a different, special character in the evening.
Major sites around the country will be crowded next summer during the Olympics. Travelers would be wise to buy train and attractions tickets in advance. Whenever you go on your voyage magnifique, take time to wander streets, people-watch from a café, and reflect on the rich tapestry of history and culture that is France.
Tourist towns and their sites adopt a different, special character in the evening.