This morning I am sitting at Café Delmas, watching the world go by. Soon, I’ll be heading to Bayeux for a two night stay, in part to squeeze in a tour of the D-Day sites before the 65th anniversary attracts larger crowds—as well as President Obama and his entourage—later this week. But for now, I feel lazy and content with my pain au chocolat and café crème.
The train to Normandy leaves at 12:10 PM from Gare Saint-Lazare, the station made famous in a series of impressionist paintings done by Claude Monet in the 1870s. To my eyes, its vaulted ceiling of iron and glass looks much the same, and the continuity across the intervening century impresses me.
By 2:15, I’m resting comfortably in the back seat of a cab heading for the Hotel Churchill. With a jovial smile, Daniel greets me at the front desk and hands me the key to room 200, which is (at least for me) unnecessarily large and expensive. It is testimony to the popularity of the hotel, or perhaps to the importance of the week, that it was—even seven months ago—the only room left.
I pause for a moment to enjoy the view out the window, which looks out across a sea of gray rooftops, from which the spires of Bayeux Cathedral rise in the distance. I decide to make that my first destination.
From Place de Québec, behind the hotel, I take a short walk down Rue Larcher before turning onto Rue de Nesmond towards the cathedral. It’s an impressive structure dating to the 11th century, both Norman and Romanesque. Made of a honey colored stone, the façade is ornamented with gargoyles and grotesques. The contorted faces are meant to ward off evil sprits, or so I’m told. I’ve seen these fantastical beasts clinging to the sides of churches all over Europe, and I usually find them more charming than frightening. But here their wildness is enhanced by the occasional tufts of vine and grass growing from cracks in the ancient mortar.
When I reach the heavy wooden doors at the entrance to the cathedral, I pause for a moment to appreciate the tiny figure carved into the tympanum above the south portal. I’m certainly no expert, but last year’s trip to Italy taught me something. It’s easy to spot a depiction of the “Last Judgment,” and there he is, the Devil, guarding the gates to Hell.
Inside is another matter entirely. This is pure Heaven. So quiet and serene, in fact, that for a while as I wander from one side chapel to the next, I forget that this is the place where Harold swore allegiance to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the man named by Edward the Confessor, King of England, as his heir. It was this oath that Harold broke, leading to the Norman invasion and William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which later through the charms of history gave him the far superior name of William the Conqueror.
Today, the cathedral owes its preservation to the speedy success of another invasion eight centuries later. Bayeux was liberated by the Allies soon after D-Day in 1944, which spared the structure—and its medieval stained glass windows—from the bombardment that flattened nearby Caen. I am grateful for that as I watch colored light spill out through the cobwebs that have collected in the window frames, like some manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It’s a peaceful space and I would stay longer if it weren’t for my gnawing hunger.
In search of something to hold me off before dinner, I make a loop through the town, along Rue de Cuisiniers and its half-timber frame buildings, then down Rue Saint-Martin, to the riot of shops that line Rue Saint-Jean. For an unbelievably cheap €1.60, I buy a luscious pear and almond tarte from a pâtisserie called La Reine Mathilde and munch happily as I make my way to the Tapestry Museum.
The famous Bayeux Tapestry is really not a tapestry at all, but rather a long piece of embroidered cloth, said to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Measuring nearly 230 feet, it depicts in consecutive scenes the events leading up the Norman Conquest of England. For centuries, it was displayed once in a year in the cathedral for the Feast of the Relics, but since 1983 it’s been hanging behind glass in a darkened room in the city’s former Seminary.
With the museum’s audio guide planted firmly on my head, the experience is a feast for the senses. It’s all here. Edward the Confessor sending Harold to France, Harold shipwrecked and held for random along the way, Harold’s oath of loyalty to William, and the bloody aftermath of his defiance following Edward’s death. There is a Latin inscription along the way, but the message is overwhelmingly visual. There are soldiers in chain mail riding horses into battle, a hailstorm of arrows, and decapitated bodies littering the ground.
Afterwards, in the museum gift shop, I overhear a conversation between an American husband and wife. The wife, it seems, missed the crucial scene at the end where Harold is killed by an arrow in the eye. In a deep southern drawl, tinged with disappointment, the man says: “But that’s the best part!”
I have just enough time to change clothes back at the hotel before making my 7:30 PM reservation for dinner at Le Pommier. It’s an expensive meal, but a well-earned treat. I order a glass of wine and three courses from the Norman cuisine menu—a salad with warm goat’s cheese to start, followed by medallions of pork in a Neufchatel cheese and cream sauce, ending with an apple pie served with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream.
At the table next to mine, a middle-aged couple is dining with two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The girl is acting moody, pulling her fists deep inside her navy hooded sweatshirt. She doesn’t know what to order, but more than that, she doesn’t much want to be here, and from where I sit I’m not quite sure if her complaint is associated with this restaurant in particular, or France in general. When she looks over at my entrée, I show her the pork, which I can heartily recommend, but when she sees my bread plate a genuine smile grows across her face. “Oh, you have butter,” she says, animated at last. “H-o-o-o-w did you get butter”?
Ah, the French. They may be well known for their rich sauces, but it is true that they rarely serve butter with their bread. Nonetheless, here it is, unprompted and nearly overlooked, in a miniature crock on my table. The simple gesture brings pleasure to us both, something familiar far from home, and we both grin.
On my way back to the Churchill, I use my cell phone to call my nephew to wish him a happy 18th birthday, and then I linger to take some pictures of the cathedral, floodlit against a fading blue sky. I can see it still from my hotel window, until I pull close the drapes, turn out the lights, and fall into bed.