Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May 2-5 - A touch of Brittany and a taste of Normandy Day 4

On the trail of William the Conqueror

Normandy is that part of France given to the Viking raiders from Scandinavia in order to end to their plundering all up and down the Seine River - even so far as Paris. These Norsemen from Denmark, Norway and Iceland had been raiding, pillaging and exacting tribute from the Franks who nominally controlled the region. Finally, in 911, the Frankish king, Charles the Simple, made a pact with Rollo (aka Rolf, Rollon) to give him the region today known as Normandy. As ruler of this area, Rollo also conquered Brittany. The colonization of Normandy and Brittany by the Norse ended the terror of Norse raids in the Seine and Loire areas. As Norsemen intermarried with the local people, they adopted French customs and lifestyles.

Five generations later, William the Bastard, aka William the Conqueror is born to Rollo's great-great grandson and his French mistress, Arlette. William is not only Duke of Normandy, but, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King of England as well, becoming the most powerful ruler of his time.

Today, we are visiting some of the places important in William's life, Bayeux, Caen and Falaise.
Our route for the day
Our starting point is Bayeux. This is where we have stayed in a modern and inexpensive French hotel for the past 2 nights. The rooms are adequate, beds are comfortable. To avoid steps, I had requested handicapped rooms. The large bathrooms certainly had all the functions, except you couldn't control the temperature of the water coming out of the tap. It was always warm. Made for an interesting task of brushing teeth or taking pills. But that wasn't the only strange piece to this bathroom. The luxurious shower with rain head, adjustable sprayer, and fold down seat had no curtain. As a result, the entire bathroom became flooded when showering. (You'd want to be the first to shower in the morning!) The toilet seat was wet and if you didn't move the towels first, they would also be wet. Nevertheless, Janis pronounced this the best shower she'd had in France. A shower curtain would have made it a lot better.

Last night we treated ourselves to dinner in a Trip-Adviser recommended restaurant in the center of Bayeux called La Maison Blanche.
La Maison Blanche
The small intimate dining room already had a table of 8 lively English tourists when we arrived at 7. We were later joined by a French couple who engaged us in conversation making for a very interactive dinner. Our servers were the girlfriend of the chef and the owner (we think). Both spoke good English and the sense of humor of the owner made the evening lots of fun. Not to mention that he also brought a bottle of Calvados and 5 glasses to our table and joined us for an after-dinner drink.

Not enough fun yet, he next brought over a bottle of Absinthe. Now this is the spirit that was eventually outlawed as a hallucinogenic. The green-colored 180 proof alcohol is flavored by anise, wormwood and sweet fennel. Modern research has shown that Absinthe is not hallucinogenic and the poisonous attributes of its 19th century reputation were caused by adulterating the alcohol to make it less costly including the addition of wormwood oil and methyl alcohol. Modern Absinthe, our host tells us, is carefully controlled (and taxed) and has no impurities. So we taste this drink often called "the green fairy", and find it delicious. I didn't think I'd like it, because I don't like anise flavored things. But it would have been easy, however imprudent at 180 proof, to have a second glass.

Leaving the hotel the next morning, we headed into the old part of Bayeux to have breakfast omelettes at the hotel/brasserie "Au Georges VII". Quick service, tasty omelettes, croissants, and large cups of coffee get us going for the day.

The cathedral is just down the block, so we walk over to explore it.

A large tree which I mistakenly identified as having been planted to honor our Revolutionary War, was actually planted in 1897 in honor of the French Revolution. Well, I had the revolution part right.
The Liberty Tree

We walk around to the front of the cathedral where the half-timbered houses on the square remind us of the cathedral's early beginnings.
Part of the abbatial buildings in the middle ages, this house now houses a shop for restoring antique tapestries
Consecrated in 1077 by William the Conqueror's half-brother Bishop Odo de Conteville who, it is now believed, also commissioned the embroidery we call the Bayeux Tapestry. (more later)

Fires damaged the original Romanesque cathedral and it was repaired in the 12th century in Gothic style.
The cathedral features rich decorations in its stone walls and some remains of 14th century stained glass windows.

However, most of the windows are plain glass which gives the interior an especially light and airy feeling. The size and richness of this cathedral is greater than would be expected in a town the size of Bayeux and owes its majesty to the power of Odo and William. It is here that William made Harold (more later) swear an oath of fealty to him. One of the decorations of the church shows this event.
Harold swearing allegiance to William. He touches two holy relics in making his promise

And it is here that until 1792 the Bayeux tapestry was stored and hung at least once a year to teach the historical events of the Battle of Hastings. At least the Norman version favored by William and Odo. Alternative facts, perhaps? Certainly a Norman point of view.
Rear of Bayeux Cathedral

These days the tapestry, which is really an embroidery on linen fabric, is housed and displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum (Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux). So we walk the couple of blocks to the museum.
Old mill in Bayeux

A store for Judy S. Everything here is red poppies. 

At 224 feet long by 1.5 feet high, the tapestry unrolls its way in a specially designed and lighted display case along a curved wall in an otherwise dark hallway-type room.
For the price of admission (9.5 Euros), each person is given an audio guide in their language. The guide runs automatically on entrance into the tapestry room and leads the viewer scene by scene through the events depicted in the 50 scenes of the tapestry. We are lucky that there are no groups at the museum at the moment and so we have front row views of the tapestry.

The tapestry tells the story of the events of 1064-1066 leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings. It shows King Edward (a distant cousin of William) sending Harold to France where he is captured, held for ransom, released, and then swears an oath to William. He joins William in a battle in Brittany and then returns to England. Edward dies without an heir and Harold is crowned king. But it was Edward's wish to confer the crown to William on his death. (Or at least that's what William wants us to believe.) William then prepares for battle, building and outfitting ships in order to collect his inheritance. A great number of ships cross to England with horses and all the gear of an army. William goes into battle against Harold who is killed during the battle.
The tapestry ends there but it is believed there should have been an additional scene showing William being crowned King of England, although there has never been a record of its existence.

Once the viewing is completed, you enter the museum itself which includes a third floor film about the tapestry and second floor displays of life in Norman times - boat building, cooking, armaments, etc. This is also very well done in a darkened room with lighting highlighting the items of interest and their connection to the tapestry.

Once through the museum, we head back to the car to find our next William link. This time it's a lunch visit to the Abbé aux Hommes (Men's Abbey) in Caen established by William in 1063.

St. Stephen's
Caen is also the location of the Abbé aux Dames (Women's Abbey) established by his wife Mathilde. William was buried in the church of St. Stephen in the abbey, but his bones were scattered during the French Revolution. Supposedly a femur is still buried under his gravestone.

Our final stop on our way back to Brissac is the town of Falaise, William's birthplace.
A quick look at the ruined castle above the old part of the city
Castle where William the Conqueror was born in Falaise
Keep of Falaise castle
and a statue to William
William the Conqueror - Falaise statue
and his ancestor Dukes of Normandy, is all the time we have to give this city. But a trip back would be nice. We didn't visit the church,
Church in Falaise
nor did we visit the museum dedicated to civilians who endured Nazi occupation, Allied bombardments, and finally liberation. In Falaise, 350 citizens died in the fighting between the Allies and the Germans in 1944. It was the last battle of Normandy. The Allies had the Germans surrounded, but, ordered by Hitler to continue to fight rather than withdraw, the Germans would not surrender and the area around Falaise became a bloodbath. Thus, in this short trip, we have come full-circle to a place steeped in the history of conquest both ancient and modern, resulting in the death of the ordinary person - soldiers and civilians alike - dispensible beings in the grab for power and wealth. When will we learn?
French children looking at out of action tank in Falaise, 1944; wiki commones

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