Sometimes the Gods of Travel decide to have a little fun at the expense of those who revere them.
Today was such a day. Not a problem, really, because, if you accept that you cannot change that which cannot be changed, you decide to enjoy it anyway and laugh about it (usually quite a few weeks later!!)
The first sign of trouble appeared when our tour guide told us that today is a Religious Holiday in France, Ascension Day.
It didn’t take much to realise that, in France, this means 99% of everything will be closed.
As we neared Lisieux, he also told us that Normandy was a major WWII battle zone (we knew that), but went on to explain that most of the original buildings had been destroyed and it was now largely “modern architecture” (read 1950’s concrete).
The final blow fell when he told us we’d been allocated a 3 hour visit. We guessed we’d find this about 2hr 55mn too long!
We weren’t far from wrong. The city has 3 fine churches. Ascension Day, remember? Mass was being held in the most spectacular, the others? We’ve seen dozens of Medieval Catholic cathedrals, one enormous one just yesterday. These were around par for the course.
Yes. Everything was closed except some coffee shops and a Monoprix supermarket. And yes. Monoprix was the most exciting part of our Lisieux sojourn. It sold take-away sandwiches - just what was needed as we weren’t returning to Rouen until around 7pm. Lunch in the bag. A potential problem solved.
So we moved on to Cheese Central.
Firstly, we’d expected (and so did our drivers, I think) to arrive at a cheese production facility. It wasn’t.
Secondly, they didn’t know we were coming. They’d lost the email. (Turned out when interrogated by the drivers, they hadn’t; it appeared they’d simply overlooked it.)
However, the coach crew “reinstated” the visit (like the football: England 1 France 0), although that wasn’t possibly the best result.
First we visited the “museum”, a converted barn containing a plastic horse and cart, a plastic cow (in fairness, all life-size), some posters and a movie (both in French). However, the movie at least had English subtitles.
Then the tasting.
Three portions of different Camembert cheeses each (about large enough to feed an anorexic mouse) were served on croutons of bread. They tasted just about the same as those we buy from time to time in our local supermarket. All were available for purchase (at about twice the price in our local supermarket.)
This is a village that dines out (sorry) on its name, and adds a very large cover charge!
Twenty minutes driving along some country roads took us to a cider & calvados producer’s farm. At least they knew we were coming!
Now what followed, I found quite charming. Many others didn’t feel the same.
Monsieur le Proprieteur was away, so his charming early 20’s, daughter, Sophie, was left to do the tour. She was very knowledgable but DIDN’T speak a word of English.
Sophie had, therefore, enlisted (press-ganged?) her best friend, Marie, to act as a translator. Marie, I learned, was doing a degree in Electrical Engineering (i.e. didn’t have farming in her blood), and wasn’t totally fluent in English (read: she didn’t have much relevant technical vocabulary.)
To add comedy to tragedy, they don’t produce their cider and calvados at this time of year. They’re a small, national awarding winning producer, but apples are only available for harvest in the autumn. Yes, some trees were in blossom and quite pretty.
So we strolled around, looking at idle machinery, quietly sympathising with Marie who often struggled to explain what Sophie had said. After a short time, a few of us who (a) knew a little French and/or (b) knew a little about brewing/wine production/distilling, did what we could to help Marie out.
As I said, I found it charming. Both girls were young and trying to do the almost impossible; Marie frequently apologising for her lack of English. (Her English was a darn sight better than most of our French).
However, they did provide tastings of all their ciders, pommeau, perry and calvados. They were even willing if you asked (I did) to sample their 20yr old calvados which was on sale for €70 bottle.
And so, a little merrier, we journeyed back to the hotel.
Vive La France!
A 6:30am start from home began by sweating on a taxi which was late. Profuse apologies were followed by a higher speed than normal drive to pick up our coach at Cardiff West (J33).
Five minutes to spare, and from that point on… clockwork.
A few other pick-up points and a coffee stop saw us arrive at the Folkstone coach interchange by 12:45pm. Just 15 minutes later we were boarding our tour coach.
Speed is everything. As a result we were boarded on to an earlier ferry (45 minutes saved). A mill-pond English channel cut 10 minutes off the crossing. France at 4:30pm (CET -UK+1).
We arrived in Rouen before 8pm. A great result.
Fortunately, we’ve stayed in Ibis Hotels before, but this is (sharp intake of breath) an Ibis “STYLES” (breathe out).
Well it is an Ibis. Four walls, a bed, a clean and serviceable bathroom and a wardrobe. Styles? All the furniture is brightly coloured plastic (probably from Ikea). We don’t care; we knew what we were booking.
C’est La France. Porterage for suitcases, mais oui! At the speed of un petit escargot. But they arrived - eventually.
We're here. We’ve unpacked and settled in so all’s well.
The day began with breakfast. I know it’s an Ibis, but really?
The food on offer was limited by choice but, even so, very good quality. Even the orange juice came from a machine that pulped the oranges before your very eyes. Bread, pastries, ham, cheese - excellent.
However, IKEA must have been out of stock when the room was furnished… There were enough tables and chairs for about half the people needing to sit - and just one coffee machine (good coffee!) to serve everyone. Chaos. C’est La France. Vive la difference!
A comfortable 1.5 hour journey took us to Versailles, and the Palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV. I was really expecting so much, having watched the Canal+/BBC production about his life and times. (If you missed it, watch it - I think it’s still on Netflix).
Being France (I know - I’m Francophobic), so much offered, so little delivered. The Palace was “OK”, but so crowded you couldn’t really enjoy it. About 10k French (mostly school kids) and half the population of Beijing filled the place. It’s magnificent (I know from the TV series) but there was no way whatsoever to see or pause to absorb what was there.
In fact, the whole place was “Let’s take as many Euros as we can, and never mind the experience”. We’d pre-purchased entry tickets on-line and it took around 15 minutes to gain access. The queue for ticket purchasing was so long, it probably was taking over 2 hours to reach the front (and this was around 10am).
Again, the gardens. Beautiful: renowned for its fountains. Tuesdays has an extra €7 fee for the “Musical Fountains” performance. There was music, but at around noon, the fountains stopped fountaining.
It’s a disgrace really. It’s a World Tourist Site. There could have been upward of 50K visitors just today (based on the number of tour buses alone). Do they care? Not in the slightest.
If it’s on your bucket list… Delete it.
However, we escaped the Palace after lunch to view the town of Versailles. Far more enjoyable. Charming streets, pretty old and interesting buildings and some top-of-the-range coffee and pastries cafés.
To be fair, we really enjoyed the day, but it could have been so, so much better.
Today, we sorted the breakfast problem. It’s supposed to start for our tour at 7:30am, but it’s open from 7am according to the room guide. We went down at 7am - just a few people there. Solved!
Our tour took us to Giverny, just outside Vernon, Monet’s home, which inspired so much of his work. The weather gods smiled once again, so just as we arrived the Sun broke through the clouds and it stayed that way until just after we left.
It’s simply beautiful. It was a home, not a chateau, so the proportions are small in comparison, but he wasn’t short of a franc or two, so by home standards they are very large gardens.
What impressed us most was how so much of it looks random - a country garden with flowers and shrubs growing mixed together - and then you realised this is carefully planned chaos. Colours, heights and shades all work in harmony.
The amount of work involved must be tremendous. Many of the plants were not “long lasting” varieties. Most in bloom were late spring plants which will need to be replaced with summer flowering plants. And there are, literally, thousands of them! We saw maybe 8 or 10 gardeners hard at work during our time there.
The house is open and, unlike Versailles, a polite “guard” at the door controls admission on a first come, first served system. We waited no more than 5 minutes, and there was space to see what was there to see.
(Yes, unfortunately, the other half of Beijing’s population were here, so “After me”, not “After you”, was once again needed. Why don’t they know how to join a queue?)
This was, art lover or not, a very worthwhile way to spend some time. However, without a pre-purchased pass or as part of group visit, the entry lines were substantial.
We were back in Rouen by 2:30pm, so there was enough time to explore what looks a really interesting town. Postcard to follow.
What a surprising city!
It’s busy and vibrant. The Cathedral is too big to fit in a camera lens, and there are at least 3 other churches that could easily be mistaken for Cathedrals.
There’s a very large shopping area, some modern, much more that looks medieval. You could spend a lot of time exploring here and still find something you’d missed the day before.
We were very lucky yesterday. We stumbled on a restaurant that happened to be open (most don’t open until 7pm or 7:30pm).
La Walsheim if you’re here - there’s a photo.
It was so good we went back there this evening - just as good, maybe better. I’ve managed to tick off 5 of my “must-haves” in France in just 2 meals and all were well above expectations. (The one thing I’m not Francophobic about is their cooking!).
It’s going to be a long day tomorrow, leaving at 8:30am but not returning until around 7pm. Three venues in Normandy, sampling Camembert, Calvados and Normandy Cider - well someone has to, don’t they?
We left Rouen at 8:30am to arrive in Calais for 12noon; then a 14:20 ferry and an uneventful crossing to Dover.
Time now for us to enjoy a family group of a mother, 3 girls, aged from 3 to 13 and two ageing grandparents blathering on to each other about their Disneyland Paris trip (and lots of other stuff) for the next 5 hours as we travelled to Cardiff. Why can’t siblings play nicely together?
However, we’re safely home after a very pleasant and relaxing break in France.