Christmas in Normandy

Our Christmas holiday this year was a sort of revelatory experience. In opposition to our usual packed, busy, sightseeing holidays, we rented a little countryside cottage in Normandy and did nothing but what we liked over Christmas and New Year. Of course, predictably, what I liked was plenty of sightseeing, and you could say I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into a relaxing holiday by saner elements of the family. But we had two weeks, so even with my adventure planning there were a lot of down days too, occupied by a pleasant mixture of reading, playing games, and taking walks on the windswept, empty beaches not far from our house.

We had arrived after several busy months of work and school, and it did take a few days to decompress. In fact, I must confess to a fair degree of skepticism about the whole enterprise of going on vacation for the purpose of relaxing, rather than sightseeing. Could I really feel so much better after a few days of doing nothing? Turns out that yes! I mean, it doesn’t make for terribly exciting blog copy, but this may be the first holiday I’ve returned from actually feeling relaxed. I guess it’s never too late to learn.

Besides doing nothing, we also did some things. Every time we travel somewhere new in Europe, I get the same thrill of the novel mixed with the culturally familiar. Normandy, in fact, pleased me in a way living in Europe pleases me in general. There’s a sense of history about it; sometimes even an aura of faded grandeur. This is the sort of thing Americans incorrigibly find irresistible. Some of the architecture in northern France recalls the long nineteenth century—for example, opulant beach resorts once favoured by Russian nobility. We tried to ‘take the waters’, so to speak, at one of these resorts, which offered thalassotherapy, or seawater treatments. It seemed like a nice idea for our two-days-after-Christmas anniversary, so we left the dog and the kids in the cottage—glued to various electronic devices—and drove down to Saint-Malo, a spa town just over the regional border on the coast of Brittany.

The place we picked looked like the biggest and grandest resort, with an attached thalassotherapy spa. They didn’t take bookings, and indeed it turned out that they were full when we arrived, throwing a wrench into our admittedly rather slapdash anniversary plan. I suppose it is also worth mentioning that another wrench in the plan was that spas in France are intended to be frequented in bathing suits, a possibility which should have been at least on our radar as Americans. We must really be going native in the Netherlands. Even though we had thought ahead enough to lug our entire spa kits with us in our packed little rental car, it did not even occur to us to bring a bathing suit on our holiday. In fact, the necessity for proper (or any) attire only began to dawn on us as we read French spa reviews by Finns and Swedes disgusted by the ‘unhygienic’ wearing of bathing suits. I can only imagine that the French would have similar opinions about the ‘unhygienic’ lack of bathing caps at Dutch and Scandinavian spas. But I digress. We did indeed concoct an ill-advised plan of wearing our most bathing-suit-like underwear to the spa, but we and all the other spa goers were spared that fate by the fact that the spa was full. Instead we spent a pleasant afternoon walking up and down the impossibly wide beach (also frequented by a few cyclists and a horse-drawn carriage), and exploring the old walled city, which was pleasantly decked out for Christmas. We had lunch at a delightful little tea house with a perfect view of the sea, and then drove home.

Of course, however charming it might be to visit a spa once frequented by Russian dukes, there is more history in Normandy than just centuries of beach holidays. On another day we drove an hour north and landed on one of the D-Day beaches. I had brought along my father’s 700-page biography of my grandfather, and had just gotten to the chapter on World War II. During D-Day my grandfather was based on Corsica, flying bombing missions in Italy, although he did provide air support for a similar invasion of southern France a few months later. Nevertheless, it was—to say the least—an emotional experience to relive that time in the words of my grandfather and others who lived through it, while standing on that very beach. I always have complicated feelings about the entwining of patriotism, nationalism and war, but looking at the photos of those kids—teenage and twenty-something-year-old boys—really stirred something in me. As did the rows of graves to the horizon and the excerpts from my grandfather’s journals. May we please just do everything humanly possible to not do that sort of thing ever again.

Incongruously near Omaha Beach is a trip much farther back in history to that time in the eleventh century when the Normans sailed across the Channel and became kings of England. Of course we were going to visit the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry, of which I have seen numerous bits and pieces illustrating various historical texts over the years. But to see the whole thing in all its amazingly preserved length in person, well, that was something else entirely. As someone who has spent a few years working with cultural heritage, my hat is off (in an elaborate bow) to whomever designed the exhibition and audioguide, which manage to simultaneously move visitors through at a pre-determined rate and brilliantly bring the story of the tapestry to life. No photos, so this is a replica of the tapestry. But how beautiful and interesting in every stitched detail.

We had some vague idea of doing a hike while on holiday, so I looked up national forests. In Europe, though, national parks are sometimes large tracts of wildlands devoid of human inhabitants, but in many other cases they are full of centuries-old little towns and castles. So our proposed hike in the wilderness ended up being something rather different. Driving in towards the interior of France rather than the coast, we visited a little town called Domfront that I am convinced would be a huge tourist attraction if it were located in a country less rich in picturesque towns and medieval ruins, but as it is doesn’t seem very frequented.

There was a ruined castle on the outskirts of town once inhabited by Eleanor of Aquitaine. A few kilometres away was a lake to which King Arthur was supposedly spirited (rather than Avalon). He lived there with some kind of magical lover until a local enchanter got jealous and drowned them both in the lake. Or so the legend goes.

Paris was really too far from us to be a day trip, but Axa had invited a friend to come stay with us for the second half of our holiday, so we drove in to pick her up from the train station. We spent a couple of hours doing a truly whirlwind trip up and down the Seine, picked up some Nutella crepes, and then finally popped into Shakespeare and Company, which is like the embodiment of every teenage literary fantasy I ever harboured. Basically, walking in that store makes you feel like you’re a guest at the table of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. My kids indulged me by standing in line to get into a bookstore (an idea they obviously found ludicrous). Raj even found a book he wanted, and consented to them stamping the store stamp in it as I stood rapturously by.

The Paris transport strike was still in full swing, and yes it did take us no less than three hours to drive the six kilometres from the Gare du Nord train station to the Trocadéro Gardens, but it was totally worth it to see two excited 14-year-olds getting a photo of themselves with the Eiffel Tower. OK, yes, and also me and my dog.

Our last big sightseeing day was to the iconic Mont St. Michel, subject of innumerable Instagram posts, and possibly the world’s best setting for a fantasy novel. I had consulted the tide tables, which took us to the quasi-island fortress relatively early in the morning on the last day high tide would create the dramatic mirror effect.

If there was ever a place that lived up to its fantastical reputation it is this one. Probably it helped that there were few other people about on a frosty December morning. We explored deserted streets and wandered through the labyrinthine stone abbey at our leisure. By the time we left around noon, the streets were packed, and there was literally a queue of people waiting outside the city to enter. Caveat viator.

Because we had two weeks and kids who were busily enjoying their wifi, why not celebrate our anniversary twice? Yes, with lunch at a real Michelin star restaurant, because when in France . . .

And now I realise I’ve gone and turned the whole thing into what sounds like a sightseeing vacation. But we actually did spend a lot of time curled up in front of the fire eating cheese and salted caramel (although we accidentally left all the French cheese I was planning to pack home in the refrigerator at our AirBnB, alas!). By the end of the holiday, I really did feel refreshed and completely de-stressed. It’s amazing what a few days of having nothing to do can do. Especially punctuated by another few days of interesting somethings to do. I may not be quite fully converted to the do-nothing vacation, but I am on my way.

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