Friday, September 7, 2012

Beautiful Bayeux

Most of my knowledge of all things France come from the movies and a couple years of high school French. (My main cinematic sources are "Chocolat" and "Beauty and the Beast", and yes, I am somewhat ashamed at this fact.) However, I did find that in the beautiful little French town of Bayeux the streets are cobblestone, the patisseries are brimming with fresh-baked breads and sweets and everyone, everywhere, eagerly offers up a friendly "Bonjour!" when you pass by. Flowers bloom on every windowsill, and no patch of grass goes unadorned by cheerful marigolds and fragrant roses, even the little stone bridge over the river is draped with garlands of flowers. In short, Bayeux has delight and whimsy for days.

We camped for three nights and four days, waking each morning to a car horn blast announcing the arrival of the baguette man, who sold his delicious wares for less than a euro a piece. Such bread you have never had; crunchy crusts give way to reveal the warm fluffiness beneath that manages to be so tasty, and so filling, you could munch only on the bread for breakfast and considered yourself satisfied. I will dream of these baguettes for the rest of my life. We would compliment the bread with cheese, leftover sausage or ham we purchased from the butcher shop the previous day, and perhaps some cocktail onions. (Maybe the cocktail onions sound odd, but I have a serious penchant for all sorts of pickled produce, and the onions are the easiest to transport in their slender jars and they really are quite delicious wrapped in a sliver of ham and tucked into a heel of bread.)

Each day we would rise and feast before ambling into town, generally to gaze at the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral, whose origins date back to 1077. Bayeux, for all of its obviously 19th century charm, is ancient, with its Roman-era roots on display in the form of the remains of a meter-thick rampart in front of the cathedral, built to repel the various barbarian hordes of the time. (Students of history, and players of Warcraft campaigns, of course know that there is no repelling the horde.) Viewed from the outside, the cathedral is very impressive, boasting a neo-Gothic bell tower after centuries of collapse and rebuilding, but the immense inside proves far more intricate and massive that could surmised from its exterior. Every alcove boasted a brilliantly stained glass window overlooking a small chapel dedicated to a saint, many of which were local, and the main hall was home to what felt like dozens of alcoves. The entire history of Christianity was laid out in timeline format, covering all of the rival sects that competed for dominance (Gnostics, Arians, Manicheans, Monatists, etc.) before Pauline Christianity won the favor of Constantine and the overall game at hand. It should be understood that all of these sects, many of which sounds downright impossible or blasphemous to modern Christians, had just as much influence, and as many followers, as any other legitimate sect of the day. Politics and power are the name of every game, including faith, and the history and development of early Christianity is a fascinating study in this fact.

The cathedral was built by a guy named Odo, warrior priest and half brother to William the Conqueror, whose conquest of England and seizure of the throne from the usurper Harold (also known as Henry V, mostly thanks to Shakespeare) is recorded on the famed Bayeux Tapestry. Half a meter high, and seventy meters long, the Bayeux Tapestry is not actually a tapestry (woven wall carpet), but an amazingly intricate embroidery that has been nearly perfectly preserved for almost a thousand years. It recounts, panel by panel, much like a comic book, the events leading up to William's ascension to the English throne. As the victors determine the events of history, it's impossible to know how accurate the tellings of the deeds are, but inclusion of even the most minor of details (for example, how Harold was seized so quickly by Guy de Poitiers after his ship blew off course he didn't have time to put his hose back on) and the overall lack of shit-talking on Harold despite his oath breaking, and throne-stealing lend credibility to the tapestry's recounting of events. It was customary to display the fabric in the Bayeux Cathedral twice a year, making it's enormous length and width more understandable. It felt like we would never see the end of it as it wound through a long dark corridor, our audio guide informing us of the events panel by panel over the pipes and recorders of the music of Middle Ages.

We wanted some more history, something a little more recent, and rented bicycles to make our way to Omaha Beach, famed American D-Day landing site (Oh yeah, we weren't the only ones storming the beaches that day. There were also British, Canadian and French landing sites.) and beautiful vacation spot. As our feet sank into the sun-baked sand, and the warm, blue water lapped at our ankles, it became clear that, from a personal point of view, not that of officers looking at a map, this would be worst possible place to land. As mentioned, the sand was soft, too soft for someone in full combat gear to quickly come ashore; if we with our bare feet were sinking in up to our ankles, those poor bastards would have be in it up to their knees. The beach is blessedly brief, ending abruptly in a practically sheer cliff face, dotted with numerous bunkers, most of which were set up to accommodate scores of heavy artillery. To get off the sand alive would be a near superhuman feat of agility and luck, to make it up the cliff would require unbelievable strength and adrenaline and luck, and it was clear that the success of the overall mission had to hinge on being able to repeatedly hurl waves of bodies at the well-situated German defenders. It was an instantly sobering thought and terrifying to imagine what those poor men, many still boys, had to face.

(Bunker shots.)

Yet, the sands were white, the sun reddened the shoulders of children as they ran into the waves, shrieking gleefully, and everywhere you looked, people were enjoying their day at the beach as if nothing so catastrophic could have ever happened.

We pedaled back, slower this time, taking the rolling fields of corn and sunflowers. It is worth mentioning, for the sake of accuracy, that I am no cyclist and I do not profess any great love for the activity. First of all, I live in California, I have a car, I don't need a bike. Second, bike seats make my crotch go numb. (Right here is where cycling enthusiasts start crying out, "But Traci, if you just keep at it, you'll get used to it!" and I'm over here going, "And that's something to aspire to? Screw that.") So this ride was punctuated by my occasional (okay, constant) muttered curses as I tried maintain my dignity and full body circulation. But any extremity numbness was immediately forgotten upon spying a field with a whole host of horses hanging out. I might have squealed, I may have clapped my hands, but as there is no documentation concerning these allegations, the full truth of the matter remains a mystery. What I most certainly did do was eagerly chatter on about the differences between colts and foals, and ponies and horses, to Robert's questionable interest as our new horsey friends ambled over to check us out.

After many delighted pictures, nose pats and grass feeding, we reluctantly bid farewell and pedaled on back to the town.

The south of France gets all the hype, what with Cannes and Nice and the yachting with Beyonce and Jay-Z on the Mediterranean, but for my money, the north of France has beauty, charm and that certain je ne sais quoi to spare.

(Bayeux Cathedral lit up at night. Yep, this town is that perfect.)

No comments:

Post a Comment