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Exploring Normandy Part 2: Cheese, Cider, and Postcard Villages

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Church in Victot-Pontfol–exploring the cider route.

The cool, but sunny weather of last week has given way to rain this morning.  I don’t mind too much, because rainy days are perfect for snuggling up with my laptop and Bon Iver and catching up on my blogging.  Also, we had boeuf bourguignon with braised spice cabbage for lunch, which is the perfect rainy fall day meal!  Oh my tastebuds are happy.

So, backing up to last Saturday. The best thing about having a rental car was the freedom of exploring rural Normandy (or Normandie) at my leisure (well, more or less, as much leisure as I could pack into 48 hours).

Saturday, Sophie decided she wanted to have a down day, so I was on my own.  I was a bit nervous about doing both the navigating and driving, but the great thing about country roads is you can pull off to the side and look at maps and directions when you need to.  Also, cars can turn around, which is oh so handy!

Saturday dawned cold clear morning, so a mist was just rising off the fields as I set off, making for some gorgeous, eerie type photos.  By afternoon, it warmed to the point of being comfortable in long sleeves and sans jacket, with skies that were as clear and blue as a mountain lake.

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The fog just lifting on a clear and chilly autumn morning.

After a couple detours down some tiny country roads, I first stopped in the small cheese making village of Livarot, about a 30 minute drive from where I’m staying.  It was a sleepy little village on a Saturday morning–pretty far off the main tourist drag, and not many shops were open, but  I wasn’t interested in shopping; I was there to visit the E. Graindorge cheese factory, La Village Fromargerie.

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Mmm…Normandy is yummy.

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Thanks for the cheese, cows!

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Aging camembert in the cellars of La Village Fromargerie.

A self guided tour through the factory and the museum was delightful with displays and short video clips explaining the history of the company and the cheese production process the region.  As visitors progress through the factory, they pass through the aging cellars and packaging rooms from where the cheese is then sent for distribution.  The free tour was well worth the time, and concluded with the sampling of various cheese (can’t go wrong with free samples) and local products in the gift shop.  I picked up some camembert and apple cider (juice) for my picnic lunch.

From Livarot, it was about 30 minutes north to the village of Cambremer, a pretty little town right on the cider route–a 25 mile marked tour through the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy.  The cider route is a perfect way to experience the culture and culinary arts of Normandy.  While the D-Day sights give an important insight into history, this is rural life in Normandy today.  Stopping at various estates and in the local villages, you can sample cider, calvados, and other apple products, and tour the distilleries and orchards that make this part of France so distinctive.

I had delightful time at the Dupont estate, getting a private tour of the distillery and the Calvados and cider aging cellars.  Calvados is aged apple brandy, and if I understood correctly, many of the barrels are aged for as many as 30 or more years!  You have to have a lot of patience and apples to run an operation like that!  My tour concluded with a sample of their delicious fresh apple cider (non-alcoholic for me, thank you) and I purchased a bottle of sparkling cider to take with me.  I just broke into it a couple nights ago.  It is THE BEST sparkling cider I have ever had.  Sorry, Martinelli’s.

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Calvados aging barrels at the Dupont estate.  If I understood correctly, these particular barrels will age for about 30 years.

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Touring the Dupont estate.

My final stop for the day was the popular village of Beuron en Auge, widely considered one of the most beautiful villages in all of Normandy.  It’s tiny–you can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes– and full of half timbered buildings, antique shops, cider purveyors, and small boutiques to delight tourists.

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Delightful half timbered home in the postcard town of Beuvron-en-Auge.

While it can be crowded during the summer, this weekend at the end of September was pleasantly tranquil, giving me plenty of time to enjoy my picnic of all local foods: cider, camembert, and a fresh baguette–and then go exploring.

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Dining as the locals do. The perfect picnic.

That, in a word, was my day.  Exploring at its purest.  Driving through France, in my adorable rental car, looking at a map but just turning down whatever road intrigued me.  Meeting local people, trying the local food that they were so proud of, and enjoying the autumn sunshine.  Perfect days are so rare, and this one was definitely one to treasure.


Exploring Normandy Part 1: Mont Saint-Michel and D-Day

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Hi Friends!

Autumn has arrived in Normandy, and it is glorious!  My favorite time of year, and I am blessed enough to enjoy it in this pastoral paradise in northern France.

I have several blog entries started that I still need to complete and post, including my adventures in Austria, Bavaria, and Barcelona, so those will be forthcoming, but I wanted to share some pictures from this last weekend, because it was AMAZING.

This is another work away stay for me, so most days I’m just hanging out and working at the farm/B&B–it’s pretty remote, so without a vehicle it’s hard to explore, but this last weekend, my friend, Sophie, and I splurged on a rental car and had ourselves a great adventure!

I LOVED our little rental car.  It was a Toyota Yaris hybrid, and it was tiny and adorable, and I wanted to keep it forever.  Only drawback was that for a hybrid, it really wasn’t all that fuel efficient.  Still, we had a car and FREEDOM!!!  I was surprised at how easily I found it driving in France, even if some of the road signs were unfamiliar.  I did realize though, that I must drive too slowly to satisfy the local population.  Even going 10 kilometers/hr over the speed limit I still had people whizzing past me quite regularly.  However, not knowing France’s stance on speeding violations, I chose to error on the side of caution.

We started by driving to Mont Saint Michel, one of France’s great monuments and pilgrimage sights.  We got there late Thursday night, and got some beautiful views of the island all lit up at night, but unfortunately couldn’t find a good photographic location–the drawback of arriving after dark in a new place.  So we bagged the night shoot idea and got an early start Friday morning.

That turned out to be a great plan, as we had amazing views of the morning light.  The fog was just lifting off the fields and the water, so it made the island and the abbey look like it was emerging from the pages of a fairytale.

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Morning light on Mont Saint-Michel.

There’s a small causeway and bridge (which just opened this year) stretching from the mainland over to the island.  There is very limited vehicle access, and the car park for visitors is on the mainland, so we parked and took the free shuttle over.  The island itself is very small, dominated by the huge abbey at the top.  There is one main street that goes up, and a couple of back ways as well.  We were there early enough to avoid the crowds of day trippers (the buses were arriving when we left about 10:30, so if you go, early is better!).

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From Mont Saint-Michell it was just under 2 hours to Utah Beach where we began the D-Day portion of our sightseeing.  We only had a half day, so we ended up just seeing the American sector–Utah and Omaha beaches and the related sights.

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Utah beach was an awe inspiring place.  I know that tends to be cliche, but this was truly one of those places that gave me an incredible sense of awe, gratitude, and humility.

The beach today is vast and peaceful. Being the end of September it wasn’t crowded, and visitors seemed to share a feeling of reverence about the place as they walked and looked and remembered.  For locals it’s the local beach, for horse back riding and family outings.

Various monuments remember the events and people who gave their lives over 70 years ago.  There is also a marvelous museum depicting the events leading up to and surrounding D-Day, including an exhibits on the rise of the Third Reich, the preparations for the invasion of Normandy, D-Day itself, and the following days, weeks, and months of fighting after the initial invasion.

I would have loved to have spent more time at this museum, but we still had a few more stops to make that day, so we had to move on.  For those visiting the D Day sights, I would recommend allowing yourself 2 full days so you can truly take your time.  One of the things I hate most is being rushed when I’m sightseeing.  But in this case, we had a rental car for a limited amount of time, and I really wanted to spend some extra time at the American Cemetery.

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The drive from Utah Beach to the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer took us about 30-40 minutes.  The cemetery and visitors center sits on the bluff above Omaha Beach.  What was once a literal battlefield is now the resting place of more than 9,000 servicemen who died during the liberation of France.

Each grave is marked by a white marble cross or Star of David.  When the individual is known, the marker is engraved with their name, rank and unit, place of birth, and date of death.  If the remains buried there were unable to be identified, the marker simply reads “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known Only to God.”

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In addition to the graves, the cemetery also contains a chapel and the Memorial.  Behind the Memorial is the Garden of the Missing, which lists the names of 1,557 servicemen who died in Normandy, but don’t have a known burial.

When I visited it was a beautiful, perfect fall afternoon.  The first leaves of autumn were just starting to fall, and the rain that had plagued us off and on all day had dissipated.  Beyond the cemetery the English channel was a gorgeous blue, and the beach below was calm.  While I was writing in my journal, I could hear a lone trumpet playing taps.

It was such a privilege to be there, to listen and to remember.

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We were able to spend some time walking on Omaha beach before back tracking a bit to Pointe du Hoc.  Perched on cliffs between Utah and Omaha beaches, this was a strategic point for German armed forces during World War II, and one of the key places of attack in order for the allies to claim victory in Normandy.

Pointe du Hoc was hit by intensive bombing prior to and during the invasion, and the scars left on the land are still there today.  Huge craters and a couple remaining watch towers and armories remain as a testament to the destruction.  I had never before seen an actual bomb site, and the size of some of these craters was astounding.

Still, the view from atop the cliffs was magnificent, and to be there at the close of the day with the sun sinking into the horizon was a glorious way to conclude our day.

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This concludes part 1 of my Normandy exploration.  Stay tune for part 2, which should be posted in the next few days!


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