Travelogue for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, 2009

Travelogue for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, 2009

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Welcome!  This is an online travel journal for my Summer 2009 trip to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, which covers the following destinations:

  • Paris
  • Bayeux
  • Mont-St-Michel
  • Chartres
  • Colmar
  • Bruges
  • Ghent
  • Amsterdam
  • Delft
  • Den Haag
  • Haarlem
  • Zaanse Schans

Also, you should know that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more from my trip are available on Flickr.

Enjoy!
DLG

 

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cursed.

Try as I might, that’s the word that’s repeating in my brain as I head off to Europe this year.  It’s my fourth solo trip.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, so the apprehension I feel seems odd and misplaced.  First there was London in the summer of 2006, then a wider swing through the UK in 2007 ending with a week in Paris, and then last year Italy. Fourteen days spent living la dolce vita in sweet, lovely Italy. This time it’s a return trip to France to explore parts of Normandy and the Alsace, followed by a journey north and east into Belgium and the Netherlands.  It all sounds wonderful on paper—perfect, really—so it’s a shame that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start.

I’m not entirely serious when I say that, of course, but there is something to it. Unwittingly, the dates I locked in last fall in order to use my frequent flyer points conflict with my nephew’s high school graduation. That’s guilt-inducing enough, but to make matters worse I’ve developed a lingering foot problem that makes walking distances rather like stepping on a nail (over and over), which should make climbing into German bunkers near Omaha Beach and, quite frankly, all of Mont-St-Michel, interesting.

Weeks before I leave, an outbreak of swine flu has me worried about restrictions on international travel. In a mad and quite possibly vain attempt to stay well, I start carrying a bottle of Purell with me everywhere I go. Then, with just days to go, I find out that United Mobile, the company that operates the SIM card on my cell phone, is suddenly out of business and has taken with it all of the money I recently added to my pre-paid account in preparation for my trip. And finally, hours before takeoff, comes the surprising news that my “window” seat on Lufthansa, booked seven months ago, is actually—and ironically—in a row without a window. When I make a mental tally of these things, I know it could be far worse. In this economy, I’m fortunate to be able to travel at all, and yet it feels like a premonition of things to come. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Literally.

So let’s just cut to the chase.  Let’s get to the bottom line.  I’m writing this as a retrospective at home in Vermont in mid-winter, so I might as well say that this is going to be the story of a road trip that is filled with rain, transportation detours and delays, more rain, scaffolding and other forms of obstruction, a broken camera lens, and still more rain.  Really, a ridiculous amount of rain.  So, let’s just thank God here and now for Parisian tartes and café cremes, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pancakes, before rewinding to the start of the story…

Amen.

It’s early on a Sunday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  This is what happens when you try to use years of accumulated points in your Dividend Miles account.  You get a tight connecting flight on a partner airline, although I suppose the upside—if I follow the Sarah Palin school of thought on foreign travel—is that I now get to include Germany on the list of countries that I’ve visited!

There is a general moan among the passengers on flight 427 when a short delay is announced for “cleaning and catering.”  Within minutes the crowd grows antsy and it is clear that there will be little patience for boarding etiquette.  Despite the usual invitation for families with small children to board first, everyone begins to press towards the door in an undifferentiated mass.  The Lufthansa employees seem to know it’s a losing battle, so they resort to social admonishment instead.  In a stern German accent, a man says: “I dit not know vee had so many children onboard dis flight!”

Filing in, though, I’m feeling a bit smug. We are told that the cabin is filled to capacity, every seat taken, but before leaving home I checked in online and was able to change my undesirable, windowless seat from 32K to 35A, a maneuver at the time that felt worthy of a fist pump.  But as I make my way down the aisle, I’m suddenly perplexed. Row 32 has a window, a perfectly fine window, identical in every way to every other window.  So much for the color-coded warning on Seat Guru’s floor plan.

As I settle into my new assignment, I find myself squeezed in next to a very large and already very sweaty woman.  She’s quiet and not at all inconsiderate, but between shoulder and knee, there’s truly no way to avoid full bodily contact.  It’s going to be a long and uncomfortable night.  I crane my neck to the right and for a moment stare wistfully at the nice-looking man sitting in the aisle seat of row 32, and the woman resting peacefully by the window next to him. Ah, fate, what have you done to me?

On the upside, we were scheduled to depart at 6:05 PM, and despite the all the nonsense over “cleaning and catering” it’s only 6:15 when we pull away from the gate, which when you think about it, isn’t bad at all.  But the delay has forced us far back in the queue for take-off.  It’s 7:00 by the time we lift into the air.  My one and a half hours of leeway in Frankfurt—an overly optimistic layover from the start—is shrinking into nothing…

Monday, June 1, 2009

It’s always hard to sleep on an airplane, but this has been darn near impossible. When I raise the shade on my window and feel the morning sun on my face, I’m glad the night is over. But with the end of one difficult situation comes another. I still have to make a connecting flight to Paris.

It’s 8:30 AM when we pull into Frankfurt and my next plane boards in 45 minutes. We’ve gained some time, but I wonder if it will be enough. I check my watch and figure I’ll be fine as long as the departure gate is nearby and the lines at passport control are short. When I check the monitors in the airport against the terminal map in my hand, I see that A36 is about as far away from B33 as it is physically possible to be and still be in Germany. Cursed.

I’m road weary and my foot is throbbing, but I move as fast as I can through the airport with my backpack and camera bag, down one corridor, then stairs, then passport control, then an elevator, then security, then more corridors with moving walkways. At least I think. I’ve lost track of exactly where I am. When I find the gate at last, past a series of Camel smoking stations enclosed in glass, their windows gray with a nicotine haze, I have no more than sixty seconds of satisfaction before the plane begins to board.

It is, in the end, an easy hour in the air, and when we touch down at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, I feel ready to walk through my usual arrival routine. I call my family at home to let them know that I’ve arrived safe, if not entirely sound, and I pace nervously by the baggage carousel praying my suitcase made the connection in Frankfurt more easily than I did. Then, with all in hand, I head for the tourist information desk to buy a ticket for the RER, and while I’m at it, a 4-day Paris Museum Pass. Checking items off my list makes me feel confident, once again back in control.

The RER B is crowded and hot, so by the time I step off the train and drag my luggage up the stairs, my lungs are grateful for the clean, fresh air. It’s a beautiful day in Paris, the sun so bright that I have squint as I leave the station. I’m reentering the city exactly where I left it two years ago, on the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. On an afternoon such as this, it seems a shame to take a taxi to the apartment I’ve rented. I decide to walk instead, dragging my suitcase on wheels behind me across the cobblestones.

I turn up Rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon and pause to catch my breath near the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, where I spent my first lovely week in Paris in July 2007. I had hoped to stay there again, but this time found the prices to be well outside of my budget, hence my first brave attempt at booking an apartment online.

I turn right, then left, and walk until I reach the Place de la Contrescarpe, the neighborhood Hemingway wrote so fondly about in A Moveable Feast. I have my own fond memories of the place and of the Sunday afternoon I once spent there shopping and eating ice cream and watching folk dancers in the misting rain in front of Saint-Médard church. I am glad to be back.

As I turn down Rue Rollin looking for number seventeen, a blond haired woman approaches me with a generous smile on her face. It’s Sandy, and she and Philippe have been waiting for me in the flat.

They call the apartment, which is nestled behind the courtyard of an 18th century building, “My Little Home in Paris,” and that feels just right. It’s tiny in size, but perfectly cozy, and bathed with light. There is flat panel TV, a laptop computer, and a telephone that provides free international calls. There are shelves of maps and guidebooks and drawers full of napkins and placemats, electrical adapters and umbrellas. There is no kindness left undone.

We sit and chat for a while, but the initial adrenaline I felt upon reaching the city is fading away and my stomach is starting to growl. It’s a good thing, too, for without that incentive to move I might just curl up and take a nap here and now, and that would violate every rule I’ve every had about coping with jet lag.

I wish Sandy and Philippe a bon voyage to Florida and then set out on foot for the Seine. It’s nearly 4:00 PM when I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a stand next to Notre Dame Cathedral and inhale it while sitting on a park bench in the garden behind the church. Then, feeling fortified, I head to the Cité metro stop to do battle against the powers that be for a Passe Navigo Découverte.

Alas, I am no match for the surly woman behind the counter, who in French demands to see some proof of residency. I try to insist upon the truth, which is that tourists have a right to purchase the pass, but she is impatient with me and waves me away. Not to be undone, I march indignantly to the Saint-Michel station and try again, this time pulling a computer printout from my bag, with the key sentences underlined. It’s not necessary. The young woman nods pleasantly at me, bills the transaction, and even affixes my photo to the card. Perhaps it’s silly, but I feel a genuine sense of accomplishment afterwards. It’s a permanent card that can be easily recharged in the future, a tangible piece of evidence that says that I will return to Paris again.

I walk down Boulevard Saint-Michel, back towards the Luxembourg Gardens and stop in to Dalloyau along the way. I had adored their pale green pistachio macarons on my last trip and want desperately to taste them again. I buy two and head into the park to enjoy the snack, but they disappoint me somehow. They are not as fresh and soft as I remember, but crusty and overly sweet. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe is right. When it comes to some things, maybe you can’t go home again.

I wander through the Luxembourg Gardens for an hour or more, past the “L’Acteur Grec” statue to the shade of the Médici fountain, until exhaustion forces me home. I stock up on milk and juice at a local market along the Rue Mouffetard and pick up an onion tart at Blavette Daniel for a light dinner, which I eat around the small dining table in my apartment.

At 9:30, I start to change for bed when a sudden inspiration leads me out into the cool night air. I take the metro at Place Monge up the short distance to Pont Marie and from there walk across the Île Saint-Louis to the Pont de la Tournelle. The sun is setting in the west, behind Notre Dame Cathedral and its flying buttresses, leaving behind streaks of lavender and pink. At last, I take a long deep breath and feel as if I am exhaling, all at once, the stress that brought me here.

The worst is behind me, for I am in Paris.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It’s 8:30 AM and I’m standing in Place de Québec waiting for a driver to arrive to take me on a full-day Battlebus tour of “American Highlights.” Like the Hotel Churchill, this too I reserved long ago in anticipation of the crowds that come to Normandy each year to mark the anniversary of D-Day. I was lucky enough to snag a place in their final group of the week. After this, they’ll be closed for several days to allow their guides to join in the events.

I had been promised a small tour on a minivan with no more than eight people, so as I wait in the cool morning air, I’m surprised to see a gaggle nearly double that in size. When two vans pull up in the square, it becomes clear that the company has added a second to satisfy the demand for tickets. There is a French driver, but just one guide, a cheerful Brit named Dale Booth, who is quick to explain that he will drive as well, and rotate between vans from one stop to another to give everyone a chance to ask questions. I would be disappointed in this ad hoc arrangement, and even a bit upset, if I wasn’t so immediately impressed by Dale’s knowledge and enthusiasm. From the start, I trust him completely.

He begins by laying out the day’s itinerary. The swell of visitors to the region has complicated things, so too have the preparations for President Obama’s visit to the American cemetery in Coleville later this week. To avoid the madding crowds and the U.S. Secret Service, Dale suggests doing the day’s typical itinerary in reverse. We will stop at the cemetery early in the day—the one made famous in the opening and closing scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Then, we’ll head to Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, break for lunch, and continue on to Utah Beach and Saint-Mere-Eglise. The first stop, however, is along a quiet country road, where Dale takes a moment to explain the bocage terrain in Normandy and the enormous obstacles its hedgerows imposed on Allied troops.

When we arrive at the American cemetery at 10:00 AM it is, as Dale had hoped, quiet and serene, nearly devoid of visitors, save for a group from Luxembourg who have come to lay a wreath at the foot of the bronze statue in the colonnade, and a company of U.S. soldiers in army fatigues. We have 45 minutes here and I spend the time slowly, starting at the memorial, then walking along the path overlooking Omaha Beach, down through the pines to the chapel and back, along a neatly trimmed lawn with rows of white crosses that arch toward to the sea.

I have several uncles who served in World War II, but none who crossed the English Channel that day to land on the beaches below. Still, I find myself moved to tears by the beauty of the place and the horror that it comforts. In my hand, I hold a map showing the location of some of the more famous graves—Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of a president, and the Niland brothers, whose deaths a day apart inspired the movie “Saving Private Ryan”—but try as I might I notice the uniformity of the stones more than the names, and I am struck by the overwhelming sense of anonymity it creates. Not the kind that is disrespectful of sacrifice, but rather the kind that elevates grief and attributes it to a common cause.

Before we go, I look out at the tents and metal bleachers being constructed for the week’s events. The reflecting pool has been covered to create a makeshift stage on which President Obama, Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, will stand just days from now. There will be journalists and camera crews and military bands, and every year a dwindling number of veterans will come, until one day soon they will come no more.

I’m not sorry to miss the speeches, for I would rather walk in silence among the ghosts.

Back in the van, we’ve got a half hour drive down to Omaha Beach and we pass the time by getting to know one another. I’m riding with a friendly family of five. Tammy and Steve are from Atlanta and they’re nearing the end of a trip with their three teenage children: Julia, Taylor, and Tucker. Tucker makes us all laugh when he decides that Dale’s accent makes him sound a lot like Austin Powers, which is, to a ten year old, a very cool thing. Dale takes the compliment in stride, although he’s clearly more intent on getting us all to rent the “Band of Brothers” DVDs. There are no acceptable excuses. We really must fix whatever is wrong with our lives to make time to see it.

Standing on Omaha Beach, Dale takes out his walking stick and draws diagrams into the sand to help us understand just how difficult the terrain was for the troops who landed there in June 1944. He points up to the remains of German defenses, known as Widerstand Nests, and tells us how they were able to provide a line of cross-cutting fire into the masses below.  And he explains why so few wounded were able to survive the initial assault on the beaches—they either drowned as the tide came in, or were killed by soldiers in the bunkers above.

It’s a beautiful beach, and it’s hard today to imagine the tide pools filled red with blood.  A World War II airplane circles overhead, and behind us a group of re-enactors in Army fatigues stand at attention by their jeeps and raise their arms to their foreheads in salute.  The past is everywhere.  But I also look to the left and see a woman walking her dog along the edge of the water. There is a concrete pier in the distance and the people on it may well be enjoying a view of the English Channel on a fine summer’s day as much as remembering D-Day. Dale says that this is what the French tend to do. They respect history and honor it, often in touching ways—especially in Normandy—but they live with it, rather than apart.  Omaha Beach is still a beach. 

We head west and visit Pointe-du-Hoc next, where Army Rangers once scaled the cliffs using rope ladders. The landscape is scarred deeply here. There are craters, the remains of German bunkers, gun emplacements, and rusted barbed wire.

We break for lunch at a local B&B, and then head off to Utah Beach and Sainte-Mère-Église, where a parachute and mannequin hang from the steeple of the church in honor of Private John Steele and the 82nd Airborne, recording an incident made famous in the movie “The Longest Day” (1962). Inside, a stained glass window depicts the Virgin Mary in blue, holding the baby Jesus, with paratroopers on either side descending into the village below, as if sent from Heaven itself.

Before we leave, we have some free time at the airborne museum across the street and Tucker is pleased when I spot a uniform with his name on the breast pocket.

Our final stop of the day is a visit to a tiny 12th century church in the town of Angoville-au-Plain. Dale wants to show us the monument outside that honors the work of Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore, who served as medics in the 101st Airborne Division. During the Normandy campaign the men used the church as a hospital and the pews for beds. They toiled for more than seventy-two straight hours to care for soldier and civilian casualties. Inside, as in Sainte-Mère-Église, a stained glass window commemorates their efforts.

As Dale explains, some of these memorials are donated by philanthropists and veterans groups, but most are paid for and maintained by local survivors and their descendents in small towns all across Normandy in recognition of the American sacrifice here.

Later, back in Bayeux, I linger over a pleasant dinner at La Fringale. I’m dining on boeuf bourguignon tonight, but it’s the fried potatoes on my plate that have me thinking. I’m reminded of the silliness following September 11th, where in a pique of anti-French sentiment, French fries were for a time renamed “Freedom Fries” on the menu of the U.S. Capitol cafeteria, and I am ashamed for those who accuse the French of being ungrateful.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I’m up early this morning, getting ready for a day trip to nearby Mont-St-Michel, which I’ve been told is the second most visited tourist attraction in all of France, after the Eiffel Tower, with three and a half million visitors per year. I shudder to think how many will be there today, given the beautiful weather outside the window.

I flip on the TV in my room as I’m getting dressed and tune it to the BBC. I love the BBC. Not BBC America, which I have at home in Vermont, but the genuine article. I find it comforting somehow, and unbelievably quaint. As I head out the door for breakfast, a reporter is winding up a story about local wildlife in which he invites viewers to call in and “give us your thoughts about squirrels.”

The Hotel Churchill operates a daily shuttle to Mont-St-Michel, so by 9:30 I’m resting comfortably in the front seat of an air conditioned minivan next to Sabrina, our driver, with a couple from Wichita, Kansas and a businessman from Montreal in back. At 50€ each for a round-trip fare, it’s an expensive option, but with few trains and poor connections between Bayeux, Pontorson, and the Mont, it’s wonderfully convenient.

The landscape around us is mainly flat, so though we are still miles away, it’s not long before we spot Mont-St-Michel in the distance, offering the profile of a ragged mountain rising out of the horizon. Sabrina pulls the van off the side of the road so that we can snap pictures.

As we drive in along the causeway, she recounts the legend of St. Michael the Archangel appearing in a dream to the local bishop in the year 708. The angel had instructed the bishop to build a chapel on a rocky island at the mouth of the river near Avranches, but the bishop ignored the command once, and then twice. On the third night the nocturnal visitor came again, this time pressing his finger to the bishops’ skull, burning a hole in the side of his head. Not surprisingly, the incident turned the man’s skepticism into profound—if terrified—belief and led him to begin work on an abbey in honor of the saint.

Today, the abbey and its cloisters, topped by a tall gothic spire, perch high on the rock, surrounded by gardens and medieval fortifications. At the base is a small village, with shops and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries along a narrow and winding lane optimistically titled the Grand Rue. As we pull into the car park, we can hear the sounds of military bands playing in tribute to the week’s 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

It’s a painfully tight schedule, with just three hours to visit the church, the town, and the surrounding tidal basin, so together we make haste up the long, steep hill, intending to start from the top and work our way down.

The abbey church is stark and bare, constructed of honey-colored stone. The 11th century nave and transept are Romanesque, but the choir, built several centuries later, is thoroughly Gothic, with tall pointed arches and matching windows above, supported by flying buttresses on the outside. From here, the audio guide I rented takes me to the cloister, and then through a long series of stairways, corridors, and rooms, including a chapter house and refectory.

It’s a mammoth complex, and its construction over time has a higgledy-piggledy quality that reminds me of being in a maze. Indeed, when I arrive at a room with a large wooden wheel, attached to ropes and pulleys, that was once used to haul goods from the base of the Mont, I imagine a hamster wheel enlarged to comical proportions, although here I’m told that it was propelled by prisoners… very unfortunate prisoners from the appearance of it!

I’ve had a brilliant time exploring, but I am beginning to feel desperate for the exit. It’s midday and my foot is throbbing. Between the drive to Mont-St-Michel and the long journey through the abbey, I haven’t been able to take any ibuprofen. I make my way out along the ramparts and the down through the village, stopping for a bottle of water to take my pills. I decide, too, to snack on a regional specialty, the Galette Bretonne. It’s a thick and slightly sweet butter biscuit, similar to shortbread. It has a nice flavor, but it crumbles easily and makes something of a mess.

The village is thick with tourists by now and the shops along the Grand Rue provide a veritable gauntlet of overpriced souvenirs—postcards and key chains, placemats and shot glasses. For a moment, I stand outside the window of La Mère Poulard to watch them make omelets, rhythmically whipping the eggs to a froth in a giant copper bowl.  But instead of lingering further in town, I decide to make my way out through the massive King’s Gate, back to the causeway and to the beach and bay beyond. It’s low tide, so the sea has receded enough to walk safely (for now) out into the sandbanks surrounding the island. The day is cool and breezy and when 1:30 comes, I regret having to leave so soon.

Back in Bayeux, I have a few hours to spare before my train back to Paris. I rest for a bit and then take a final stroll through the town, stopping to eat and to buy a small bottle of Calvados to take home. The journey back is quiet and relaxing, alone in a private compartment with plush gray seats that reminds me of the train Harry Potter takes to Hogwarts.

By 9:00 PM, we pull into Gare Saint-Lazare, and I have only the metro ride home, with a pesky change of line at Châtelet. The Rue Mouffetard is growing dark and the bed in “My Little Home in Paris,” just around the corner, beckons.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This morning, I’ve taken the metro from Cardinal Lemoine to Odéon, where I’m standing on a street corner in the middle of rush hour traffic trying to get my bearings. I’m looking for 76 Rue de Seine, which is the Left Bank address of the famous Gérard Mulot. I have an unrivalled sweet tooth, so for me the pâtisseries of Paris are a kind of heaven, made up of pastel-colored macarons, flaky croissants, and buttery madeleines. This one comes highly recommended, mentioned appreciatively in guidebooks from Frommer’s to Lonely Planet and everywhere in between.

When I reach the white awning above the shop window, I cautiously peer in. On display are giant cones covered in a rainbow of concentric circles, with rows of lemon yellow, turquoise blue, and pistachio green. And then there are the cakes, piled high with meringue and fresh raspberries. It’s a feast for the eyes, but at the moment I’m more interested in satisfying my stomach. I settle on a pain au chocolat and a pastry filed with buttercream and carmelized hazelnuts—both wildly successful choices!

Quite content, I make my way next to Gare Montparnasse to catch a train to Chartres. After I composter le billet in the yellow machine by the track, I settle in for an easy hour’s ride.

The gray spires of Chartres cathedral—curiously mismatched—dominate the skyline in town, drawing tourists like a magnet to the front doors of the church. I’m no sooner inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark, than I hear a familiar group of voices calling me from behind. It’s Terry and Steve and the kids, who I met on the Battlebus tour in Normandy. We all laugh and enjoy the serendipity of the moment. I mean, really, what are the chances of running into each other quite by accident in a country of 62 million people, even if the itineraries of American tourists are much the same?

Their departure a short time later leaves me on my own in the cathedral, and I begin to circle around with my neck craned high towards the windows. I’ve been drawn to medieval stained glass ever since a visit to the Victoria & Albert museum in London in the summer of 2006. I’ve seen fine examples at York Minster, at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and even at the The Cloisters in New York City, but these do not disappoint. The mass of scaffolding in the center of the church does, but the windows are lovely. There are signs of the zodiac rendered in colored glass—a scorpion, bull, crab, and ram—as well as scenes depicting various tradesmen at work—masons and stone cutters, wheelwrights and furriers. All are details that reward careful inspection.

I had wanted to visit Chartres on a Friday, in particular, because of the cathedral’s famous labyrinth. On other days of the week it is covered by chairs, but on Fridays the chairs are removed to allow visitors to walk upon it, as pilgrims have done since the year 1200, either by foot or on their knees. According to the Malcolm Miller guidebook in the gift shop, it’s the oldest and best preserved of its kind from medieval France.

I’m going to walk it myself, but for now I’m watching others take their turn. An older British couple has drawn my eye, mainly because they’re moving at an unexpectedly fast pace and their voices are echoing rather loudly. In a race to the end, the man instructs his wife to go left while he goes right, but moments later he’s sure that he’s lost and retraces his steps.

I’m torn between impatience with the spectacle they’re creating and outright amusement. Someone really should take these folks by the arm and explain that it’s a L-A-B-Y-R-I-N-T-H, it’s not a maze. There are no trophies awarded to those who reach the center first, and for that matter, there is only one way in. It’s not a logistical challenge, it’s a spiritual exercise intended for contemplation, and they’ve missed the point entirely.

Hoping for a different kind of experience, I begin my own walk slowly. I navigate the serpentine path and feel the unevenness of the marble beneath my feet, a channel worn away by centuries by repetitive motion. It has a subtle, calming effect, but it’s not exactly transcendental, in part because there are distractions all around me—a crowding of bodies, the sound of voices, the flash of cameras.

Afterwards, the ascent to the top of the tower brings some welcome air into my lungs. Halfway up, I meet a little girl no more than 5 years old. She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt and a lavender beret on her adorable blond head, and she’s looking intently down at the stone supports that curve like ribs towards the belly of the cathedral. Her father asks if she knows what they’re called. “Of course,” she says, “flying buttresses.” When she looks up at the tower and at the stairs yet to be conquered, I lean in and ask her if she’s sure she can climb all the way. “Yes,” she says solemnly, because she has already climbed an even bigger tower in Geneva.

I end the afternoon by making a slow circle around the cathedral grounds, down the hill and through the town, stopping for a late lunch at Migeon. I order a chicken salad sandwich and point to a chocolate pastry in a glass case, but don’t much mind when through some act of miscommunication I end up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate instead.

Back in Paris, the night is young and I am splurging at the Opéra Garnier with a prime ticket to a ballet inspired by Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” It’s titled, Proust ou les intermittences du coeur and it consists of a series of impressionistic tableaux that trace the author’s moods at various periods in his life, from times of great happiness to deep sorrow. Through my uncultivated eyes it seems disconnected and rather avant-garde, but the human body is a thing of beauty and great wonder, and I like the show very much. But even if I had not, the chance to sit in a chair of red velvet under a ceiling painted by Chagall, to see in the Palais Garnier the remains of La Belle Époque at its finest, that would be worth the price of admission on its own.

On the way back to the apartment, I stop to take a few pictures of Notre Dame and the Seine against the clear night sky. There is time enough yet to enjoy the “City of Lights,” but in the morning there will be rain.