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Our first trip to France coincided with a change to my company car, almost to the very day. It is a long story but for a time I had been using a spare company vehicle after having, shall we say, a few misfortunes with my own allotted vehicle. Anyway, it was time to choose a brand new one and having done so, checked the delivery schedule, we looked set to make our first visit abroad in a lovely shiny new car. That was the plan anyway.
Needless to say, my car was trapped in some endless production line somewhere in Europe and information was impossible to come by. In the week coming up to our trip, I resorted in desperation to calling the transportation company scheduled to bring the car from the port to the retail garage. Finally, I got somewhere, some information that my disinterested dealer could not find. Again, to cut a long story short, the car was to arrive at the main dealer in Leeds, Yorkshire on the afternoon before we were due to travel. We had used this dealer, which was inconveniently a difficult 70-mile drive from home, because they gave the best trade in value on the unloved staff car I had been using. Sometimes you get what you pay for and clearly customer service was one of the optional extras mentioned in the small print.
However, I finally arrived home the proud owner of a beautiful new car, a travelling companion that would eventually do more than 40,000 miles around the regions of France, with just one stutter along the way. That is a story for later in the book, but it was quite a stutter. So, arriving home around 8pm we were finally all packed and ready to go, but it had been a close-run thing, especially as we had to be on our way by 2 am to drive down to Portsmouth for the early morning ferry to Cherbourg. The delay with the car meant that we could not do the sensible thing of taking an overnight stay close to the ferry port. From a purely selfish point of view, it also meant I had to put my own diesel in the car as the company supply was closed when I got back home. You remember petty things like that, particularly when you know that expense would have been better spent on another long French lunch. Such ingratitude! I am a generous soul really.
The dawn chorus was just thinking about making an appearance when we started our approach to the ferry terminal at Portsmouth. It was then that I realized why my mouth had gone so dry and my hands were shaking. I had not got the faintest idea of how to proceed to the ferry and an embarrassed fear set in. Where on earth do I go – what lane do I take? So focused had I been on the car situation that I had not even looked properly at the tickets to ascertain which operator we were travelling with. Fortunately, at this early hour the port was almost deserted, so I had time to stop, blocking a lane, assess what I was doing, and where to go. I eventually arrived at what turned out to be the correct operator booth and handed my ticket to the pleasant but sleepy young lady who was looking down on me from high above.
I had though made the mistake of going to a booth that was really for coaches and lorries, but she humoured me, and obviously there was no way I could turn round or reverse around the pantechnicon hugging the paintwork at the rear of my car. Fortunately, I could not see the driver, but I assume there was some vigorous shaking of the head going on. She asked me for the registration number of my vehicle, but she might just as well have asked me to explain the theory of relativity. I said I had just picked up the car from the dealer and implied with Northern humour subtlety as to how on earth she would expect me to know. Only one thing for it – get out and have a look at the front of the car and trust I could remember it during the few yards back to the booth. I did not raise my head to look at the driver behind who no doubt was being frustratingly delayed in getting his full English breakfast. I suppose if I had time to think rationally, I could have looked at the paperwork in the glovebox, but you just don’t think do you? The young lady gave me this complicated thing to hang on my mirror so that we would be directed to the correct ship, but I was all fingers and thumbs and never was good at DIY, so I threw it at my wife Niamh to sort out, drove off, and the bottleneck of lorries was released. I learnt an exceptionally fine lesson that morning and one that I would always follow as our travels developed in their complexity.
From that first debacle at the ferry port, I now always do my research. In the future I would always know where I was going and what I had to do when travelling. I particularly enjoy researching our plans and it saves a lot of potential embarrassment – not all, but most. I got so proficient in knowing how things worked in France that I was happy to share that with others who were making similar trips. A good friend of mine asked about how to use the toll booths on the French autoroutes. I was happy to explain to him how to hand over his euros or use his credit card to be able to proceed. On his first, and as it turned out his only car journey to France, he got to his first Autoroute toll, then blanked out completely and ended up just parking the car in front of one of the large concrete buttresses at the tolls. A gendarme eventually came over and instead of arresting him took pity on him and showed the way forward. Maybe it was the way I explained it, but I do know he has never taken his car to France again but only returned there on the Eurostar.
Once at Cherbourg I then had the perils of driving on the ‘wrong side of the road.’ I have to say I was terrified as the massive ferry doors opened to disgorge us from this cavernous space. Now after many years it is such a familiar and routine thing for me to do, but the first time was to put it mildly – a bit of a worry. My sensible plan was just to follow someone else for as long as I could. In reality, driving in France was not something I needed to be overly concerned about. Once we had escaped the port area and easily picked up the route we required, it was comforting to find that the roads were impossibly quiet compared to the UK. You had time to think and driving actually became a pleasure. Driving in France over the years always has been fun and satisfying. There is time to take in the scenery, stopping when you wish, and generally park your car freely. Touring France became one of our great pleasures in life and still is.
Our first destination on the continent was to Saint Vaast la Hougue at its delightful hotel – Hotel de France Restaurant les Fuchsias. This hotel and restaurant had and still does have a fine reputation, particularly for the food on offer. We were destined to arrive early having made good time so far on the journey and so decided to call in at the little fishing port of Barfleur on the eastern side of the Cotentin Peninsula. From there it would be just a short journey on to Saint Vaast. The early April day was bitterly cold, in fact it was close to freezing with a raw wind coming into the harbour from the east. We had expected it to be just a little milder, we were not overly prepared for such low temperatures, but I managed to persuade Niamh that the little port village – our very first experience of one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – was worth braving the Siberian cold. The hard granite buildings of the port made it feel and appear even colder than it was. The water in the harbour would not have sustained your life for long should you have fallen from the unprotected sea wall. Barfleur has a fascinating history. It was the starting port for the invasion of Britain and the subsequent battle of Hastings in 1066. It was also the scene of a great sea battle that finally destroyed the hopes of King James the II of England in his bid to regain his throne.
For a small settlement of this size Barfleur has played an astonishingly significant role in the history of England. Some fifty-four years after William the Conqueror set sail to claim the throne of England a great tragedy unfolded on the rocks around the port of Barfleur. It was a shipwreck – The White Ship. It was said of that devastating night that ‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England.’ The pristine new ship Blanche-Nef sank just beyond the harbour, impaled on the infamous Quillebeuf reef. It was not the loss of the ship that was so devastating to England, but the tragedy suffered by the human cargo on board, the flower of England’s up and coming youth, along with a vast array of the nobles of England. Worst of all, the heir to the throne of Henry I of England, his son Prince William, was lost in the wreck. The story is a fascinating one. It is redolent of images that could be imagined today, of youths on a rowdy night out, drinking more than is good for anyone, but stepping into a vehicle to inevitable doom. King Henry had been offered this ship for his own passage, all showroom new and modern, but he had already given his word to travel on another vessel. He left the harbour before the White Ship and arrived safely home. He allowed his excited, headstrong son to travel with his friends and entourage on this fabulous, sleek, pristine vessel, on its maiden voyage after being stunningly crafted for an owner who descended directly from the Conqueror. To have such Royal patronage was a prestigious bonus. For Prince William and his lively companions, a good night out was called for before attempting to catch up with his father travelling in his modest, slow but reliable craft. From all accounts all in the party were fully inebriated by the time they boarded the White Ship and the revelries continued on board. More importantly the crew had also been willing participants in the alcoholic generosity of Prince William. Some sober passengers wisely disembarked along with an extremely ill cousin of William, young Stephen of Blois who needed to be no more than a few paces from a bathroom, in no condition to sail. His good fortune in missing the boat comes back to haunt all England in years to come.
The riotous company on board are brought back to sobriety within minutes when the glorious White Ship is torn apart on the reef, travelling at tremendous speed on a wrong course set by the drunken captain. Prince William is initially saved on the only boat available, but, hearing the cries of his sister he orders the craft back to the sinking vessel. His small craft is overwhelmed by desperate, drowning passengers seeking safety and Prince William is swept away. His body is never found. There is only one survivor, a butcher named Bertold from Rouen. He had been pursuing debts owed to him by the nobles in Henry’s entourage, following them all the way from Rouen onto the boat before being stranded on it as it sailed out of port. The shipwreck ripped the heart out of the English nobility and caused a crisis regarding the heir to King Henry. Stephen of Blois, whose need of the toilet had saved him, ultimately takes the throne despite the rightful heir being nominated as Henry’s daughter. This sets off a vicious time of civil war in England and ferocious atrocities are carried out during this time of anarchy before Stephen finally dies. The uncertainty continued after his death and all this because of a drunken night out by headstrong youths.
Outside this infamous harbour there are still natural mussel banks in the waters off the coast, providing the bounty of the Moules de Barfleur. The mussels are harvested from small boats from the harbour at Barfleur. These particular seasonal mussels are known as ‘Barfleur blondes’ and have been allocated for some years now the quality charter ‘Moule de Barfleur Normandie Fraîcheur Mer.’ Just like French wine they have their own appellation, and this is something you will find distinguishes local produce all over France. From chickens to cheese and everything in between. The French will always put a label on quality and regional excellence. Sadly, this is not a time for contemplation of French produce or French regional architecture. It is mind numbingly cold here and made worse by the wind whipping across the undeniably attractive harbour at Barfleur.
Niamh has all the historical facts she needs from me and so we head to the sanctuary of the car. The heater and heated seats are immediately turned up to full volume. We just hope that the weather turns at least a few degrees warmer, allowing us to enjoy Normandy out in the open and not from inside the shelter of a warm car. Even in darkest Lancashire I would never expect to encounter such cold in April. We head to our hotel in Saint Vaast – Hotel de France Restaurant les Fuchsias. This is a lovely, very French hotel, not grand but homely and authentic – and yes there is an abundance of fuchsias around the building. We are shown to our room which is across a rear garden courtyard area that blooms with some hardy spring bluebells. The accommodation is quite separate from the main building which houses the restaurant, Les Fuchias. It has to be said the room is not really shabby chic, rather shabbier than chic. It is spotlessly clean though and has all we need but clearly getting to the point where a makeover is required. The view back over the garden from the first-floor room makes it feel as if you are surrounded by garden allotments. We look forward to enjoying some produce from this very local garden served in the restaurant in the evening. The view from the front of the room is onto the main street in Saint Vaast.
We will find the next morning it is a lively and popular street on a Saturday morning. Finding as many warm clothes as possible from our limited supply and despite the bitter cold, we head out into the town and port of Saint Vaast to explore our new unfamiliar surroundings. If you have read some of my other writings, you will know that I love to cook, and my favourite produce is fish and seafood. For that reason, we head to the harbour and port, an enterprise that is still commercially active. Possibly a lot of the fish is Cornish, but that is for others to argue the rights and wrongs over, as we know today that battle is still disputed over. I always find these quaysides fascinating and have great admiration for these hardy souls who risk their lives out on the ocean providing this wonderful fresh produce. It is a hard living, and the rewards are difficult and unpredictable to come by, but a port like Saint Vaast and others on the Normandy coast have a long and proud relationship with the sea. Alongside the fishing port there is a sizeable marina displaying that sailing is a serious activity here. The harbour of Saint Vaast is an extremely desirable and attractive location to moor a craft. The fishing boats docked on the quayside have their support trades including fishmongers occupying the buildings lining the quay.
Opposite these buildings, on staging pontoons stretching from the other side of the harbour, the yachts and pleasure craft are moored. Berthed on a stone jetty from the quayside, fishing boats are located, and this leads the eye to a small lighthouse at the harbour entrance. Beyond the harbour wall there is an island called Tatihou which sounds like it should be out in the Pacific Ocean. Our old friend from previous escorted travels, Vauban the architect of Louis XIV, created the Tour Vauban de la Hougue on the island. He was responsible, as he was throughout France, for strengthening port defences. At low tide you can reach the island on foot or by an amphibious vehicle. You will see the oyster beds of the prized local delicacy that grows slowly in these rich pure waters of the Contentin coast.
We extended our stroll in the numbing cold to an exposed area where there is a small chapel – La Chapelle des Marins or Chapel of the Sailors. This chapel is the choir of the old church of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue originally built in the 11th Century. In the early 1700’s a square tower was added on the south side, embellished with a modest spire. In 1805, the parish priest added a side nave, also a chapel on the north side and had a sacristy built. Today, this chapel is dedicated to the sailors, the fishermen who are always in peril at sea. This is brought home to you by the many commemorative plaques dedicated to these men. It is a quiet reflective place that impels you to have a moment of meditation about how the produce you love can cost the ultimate price. As we make our way back to the hotel down the fishing quay we come to a small well equipped and modern fishing boat. The name seems quaint as we try to pronounce it – Cachalot (CASH – A – LOT). Oh, I get it now, CATCH – A – LOT. A little French joke on the Cornish perhaps. Mmm, very funny.
Feeling refreshed after a hot shower, but hungry, we make our way down to Les Fuchsias dining room. It is richly elegant, the tablecloths are crisp, the glasses and cutlery beautifully polished and of course some fresh flowers are on the tables. The welcome is a little stiff and formal but efficient. This is not a Michelin star restaurant, but you feel it has pretentions in that direction. Unusually at this early time of around 7pm the French clientele are already in their seats and the dining room is full. The atmosphere is still a little reserved and conversation is quiet and stilted but it does loosen up considerably as the meal progresses and the wine flows. I can only describe the clientele as a little bourgeoisie, it is a room composed of people who like fine dining, they dress appropriately. It is not that we feel underdressed as we have made quite an effort considering our poor Lancastrian peasant background but there are some expensive dresses and suits in here with a few dazzling embellishments on the ladies. This is our first taste of how the French really take going out for a meal extremely seriously. In England we tend to dress down for most things these days but that is not the case here. An evening meal in a restaurant for the French is to be savoured, you should look your best. They certainly do here.
The exquisitely dressed lady at the next table catches your eye with her beautifully tailored dress and exquisite pearl necklace. It is only after you have taken that in that you notice there is sitting on her lap the most perfectly presented small Pekinese dog. It is not the red bow in its hair that surprises you but the fact that it is there at all. This is something else we will have to get used to in France. The meal is a delight, and we accompany the beautiful fresh dish of John Dory with a fine bottle of Sancerre. The dessert course is a work of art, an unbelievably delicious one of millefeuille with the freshest of fruit accompaniment. With an Armagnac to finish, after a long day of travelling and seeing new sights we are happy to call it a day to now sleep soundly. Well, we slept soundly but only for a fixed amount of time.
My bleary-eyed look at my watch did indeed confirm that the tremendous clash of steel against steel has taken place at 5am. Hoping that it is safe to peer through the curtains I take a glance into the half-light outside. This is our first experience of a French market, and it will not be the last time we are roused from our beds when this sacred tradition of French life is enacted outside our bedroom window. I am not going to complain, and I never will as we will grow to love French markets, starting from today. The street is a hive of frantic activity and that in itself is quite unusual in France. A host of white vans are disgorging every conceivable type of fresh produce and household goods including of course that fixture on a French market – a mattress stall. There are no concessions to the sleeping inhabitants of the surrounding houses as the boisterous chatter from the stallholders combines with the noise from erecting the stalls. As early as 7am there are local customers, well-worn bag in hand, arriving at the market to be first to buy the prime produce on display. Immediately below our bedroom window is a large fruit and vegetable stall that takes up the entire width of the street.
It is a colourful display that looks like a breakfast buffet set up just for us. Looking over the rooftops down the main street of Saint Vaast you can see the full extent of this sprawling market. The air is damp and cold and rising from a section of stalls there is a blanket of steam that exaggerates just how cold the morning is. These stalls of course are hosted by the vendors of roast chicken and potatoes, a display that is an ever-present pleasure to behold and taste on a French market. We are a little behind the locals in getting to the market despite it starting just outside our hotel bedroom – I could almost have stepped out into the street. After a buffet breakfast of limited choice but constructed with quality ingredients we stroll out into the now bustling town. French markets are irresistible to us even in the intense cold of this early April morning. Sadly, we are not self-catering on this trip. Despite the superb range of produce on offer we must pass it all by and feel a little embarrassed in accepting regular samples from the enthusiastic vendors. The stalls are set up right outside the shops that permanently trade in the town and some of the stalls are selling exactly the same range of products as the shop they have built their stall in front of. Perhaps that is why this type of market is so uncommon in England. I doubt many shopkeepers back home would take a tolerant view of a competitor blocking their shop front and entrance for a few hours on a couple of days a week.
A cultural difference that we happily get used to. There is a store in Saint Vaast that certainly must be affected to a degree on market days as it sells such a wide range of goods. It is a remarkable shop to find in such a relatively small town. One of the finest stores you will find anywhere outside of Paris, La Maison Gosselin is reminiscent of Fortnum and Masons in London but not quite on such a grand scale. They are basically an épicerie selling fine foods and wine with an array packaged beautifully for a thoughtful gift for friends and family. The range of goods extends widely and eclectically into kitchenware, toys, and perfume but it is the superb range of quality edible produce that makes this such a gorgeous place to browse. It is very much like a provincial version of Harrod’s food hall. If you are lucky, you may catch sight of the vintage delivery van on the streets of Saint Vaast. It is a step back in time to see all these fine foods with the traditions of the past respected and brought right up to date. It is an unexpected find in this area of France, a store that could easily be placed centre stage on a boulevard in Paris.
Other shops on the main street of Saint Vaast also raise their game in the retail stakes, encouraged no doubt by the example of M. Gosselin. Close by is the most attractive of butchers called Villeneuve with its lovely period wooden store front. The displays are extensive with a vast range of prime cuts of meat, sourced of course as locally as possible. None of their produce is alive thankfully, although that extra fresh condition is available on the market stalls. The area is famed for the rich pastureland and the quality of the meat reflects that. Salt marsh lamb is a speciality and not to be missed if you are a meat lover when you encounter it on a restaurant menu here in Normandy. As is customary in such a boucherie as Villeneuve you will find a range of the finest charcuterie and dairy products. Another feature that every self-respecting establishment of this type would always have outside the store is a chicken rotisserie. The one here is going at full steam and packed with succulent roast chicken, the fragrant juices dripping slowly to be absorbed into the potatoes cooking below. The shop owner is determined to match the efforts of the interlopers on the market but as always on market days there are enough customers for everyone, not a single chicken will go unsold.
Normandy is famous for the bounty that it produces, the quality is as high as it has ever been. In the times of the occupation during WWII Normandy was still able to keep a supply of wonderful produce going into Paris, either by traditional methods or more commonly illegal, black-market ones. The city was thankful but reliant on the green pastures of this land for sustaining them through those appalling times. Everyone in Paris wanted to claim they had a relative in Normandy that would filter such produce into the capital and provide safe cover for illegal purchases. To balance all this fine meat-based produce available either fresh from the boucherie or pre-prepared, exquisitely packaged in M. Gosselin, there are displays of the finest fruit and vegetables to delight the most fastidious of vegetarians or vegans. I feel slightly overwhelmed to be in a small town away from any large conurbation offering a bewildering array of fine things out of all proportion to the apparent modest status of the place. The contrast with England could not be more striking. That contrast extends to the seafront where the boats have returned after a night spent on the freezing choppy waters of the channel.
We cannot resist paying another visit to the quayside to observe this scene of urgent activity. Here there is more furious work enacted to compete with the bustling town and market that we can still hear is in full flow behind the harbour. Fish of the highest and freshest of quality is being unloaded, energetically, and noisily, by these tired fishermen who are concerned with getting their catch ashore and on sale as soon as possible. All along the quay are lines of white vans ready to speed the produce away to market. No doubt some will be on a restaurant menu in Paris today, maybe even by lunchtime. One or two townsfolk have gathered to buy some fish straight off the boat from an obliging fisherman. Again, I am so jealous of their ability to be able to source such produce simply a stone’s throw from their home. I will always find a visit to a French market exhilarating and even more so if I can buy some fresh produce to cook later. Sadly, not today.
The main theme of our visit to this part of Normandy will be historical and I will come to the events of D-Day relating to the beaches in more detail when we head to the conclusion of our French tour. I love history and I am particularly intrigued by the times of the occupation of France and the events surrounding the liberation. So, with lovely markets and shops, great food and wine in the restaurants, plus all the history of this part of France, I am in my element. It is an ideal place to start our independent travels in France. Before I get too engrossed in the impact of D-Day there is one event that occurred around that day close to our base here in Saint Vaast that I must share before we move on. It took place at a small commune called Sainte-Mère-Église, located just down the coast from Saint Vaast, coming inland from Utah beach.
Sainte-Mère-Église was the first town liberated by the allies and is as good a place as any to start a tour of the places of historical D-Day significance. It also makes a valid claim to be a must visit town because of an extraordinary event that took place there during a massive allied drop of paratroopers in the early hours of that fateful day of June 6th. The brave operation was varied in its initial success, lacking coordination, with many men and units becoming widely separated. However, despite suffering significant losses the American troops finally succeeded in taking the town on the night of June 6th, 1944. The town itself though was in danger of being burnt to the ground when a dominant property in the town square caught fire. The townsfolk bravely formed a human chain to get buckets of water to the scene and eventually the fire was contained preventing much more acute damage to the town. All this was done despite the threatening gunfire from the German garrison who were ordering the people back to their homes.
Sainte-Mère-Église as you may be aware, especially if you are an American reader, owes its fame not for this dramatic battle for the town, or for being the first liberated place in France, nor indeed for the bravery of the townspeople. It owes its fame to one man, a paratrooper named John Steele who was an onlooker witnessing all the drama and firefight that took place in the town that night. In fact, he had the finest possible vantage point although he would not have seen it in that light on that night. Private John Steele, paratrooper in 82nd Airborne Division, was helplessly hanging by his parachute from the church tower high above the square. As the bullets were flying around below him and explosions from the artillery crashed all around, he could only helplessly dangle on his perch, exposed to not only the elements, but in mortal danger from any stray bullet or mortar. Like many of his comrades he had been dropped in error directly over the village. John Steele despite his incredibly dangerous position was one of the fortunate ones as the paratroopers were easy targets for the German ground troops. Many from his battalion did not survive the night.
John Steele, despite being wounded in the foot, played dead by staying as still as possible for over two hours before the Germans eventually took him down, thinking they were just retrieving a body. Had he shown signs of life during the battle he would have been shot. In fact, he owed his life to two of his comrades. One had also been left hanging by his parachute some metres below him. The other had landed in front of the church and was shot by a German immediately he descended to the street. Believing the young sergeant to be dead the German turned his gun up to the other two helpless Americans. The paratrooper he had shot was not dead and summoned enough strength to draw his gun and kill the German before he could fire at the two paratroopers. It was the young man’s last act as he fell to the ground and died, having undoubtedly saved his comrades. The other man managed to cut his strings and release himself to the ground and escape, believing the motionless John Steele to be dead. John Steele having been taken into captivity still managed to escape from the Germans that night and returned to his regiment. He continued his service throughout Normandy and on into Germany, surviving the war.
When you visit the town, you will be drawn to the most dominant feature in the square, an effigy of John Steele, complete with parachute, hanging from the church. Apparently, it is on the wrong side of the building, but its position is better placed for tourists. There is an Auberge in the town named after him and an entire industry of memorabilia keeps many a local in euros. It is an extraordinary story and the bravery and courage under fire of John Steele has become legendary through the book and film ‘The Longest Day. John Steele, although able to bask in the fame of these exploits, did not have a happy life afterwards and died quite young from cancer. He also never mentioned his other two colleagues which would have rounded out the story and there is some controversy that lingers to this day about why he took all the attention, including being feted at the release of the film. Ultimately, his was the more interesting story, he was the one left in position on the church. Nobody remembers who was second, but the full story including the bravery of his comrades is being told today and we can look at it in more accurate detail now, rather than relying on the Hollywood version of events.