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La Grande Maison. My sister had booked this part of our trip months ago and it completely lived up to our hopes (we had learned to let go of expectations…). Micaela and Sue were wonderful hosts, chefs, sommeliers, and local historians. The house itself was built in the late 1600s and owned by the same family who built the chateau in Samur. The son of the family fought in the American Revolution and founded a community in West Virginia that was to have been the place where Marie Antoinette lived in exile. Apparently she tried to escape from Versailles and became lost in the streets and captured before she could escape. A carriage was waiting to take her to the west coast of France to board a ship for America. It’s hard to imagine how that would’ve changed French, and for that matter West Virginia, history.
We arrived fairly late as the trip from Bayeux into the Loire Valley was long and we stayed in Normandy until nearly 3:00 visiting the D-Day sites. From our time in Paris, we had learned to purchase lunch before 2:00 when everything shuts down for a couple of hours. The little cafes have baguettes with a variety of fillings-everything from tuna (thun) to cheese (fromage) to salade (lettuce and tomato) to chicken (poulet). In the areas if food and asking for directions is where my tiny knowledge of French increased (more on that later).
On our arrival we met the four other people staying at La Grande Maison–Allie and Linsey from Sussex, England, and Andrew and Frank from Boston. That night we all enjoyed a fantastic wine pairing dinner of five courses: a sparkling white cocktail with hors d’oeuvres (olive pastry, crudités), an entree if puff pastry with goat cheese and seared cherry tomatoes, a main course of tarragon chicken, fresh vegetables, and new potatoes, a salad and cheese plate that included a pungent bleu cheese to spread on brad and top with local honey (delicious!)’ and dessert of homemade orange and strawberry sorbets. We samples three Samur Blancs, a Cabernet Franc and an exquisite Triple Sec. The only reason I have all this detail is that I saved the placemat with the menu. We really enjoyed the other people staying at the guesthouse and spent time that night and the next two days conversing with them and getting their recommendations.
We should’ve listened to Allie and Linsey who were not enthusiastic about their meal at Le Puys a Vins in the tiny village of Le Puys Notre Dame. Le Puys is some kind of inside French joke about wells. Micaela couldn’t really explain it, maybe because she’s from Britain, maybe because it’s Gallic humor and not that funny… Anyway, What Allie didn’t like was that she and Linsey were the only people in the restaurant that night. Since Micaela highly recommended it, we went to the restaurant for dinner our second night. Very limited menu–only fish, lamb and quail for main courses. I have lots of friends who wouldn’t eat any of those. And we were the only people there besides one other couple. This was a Saturday night. Because French food is so expensive and because portions are small, and in the case of my lamb a tough, inexpensive cut, maybe the restaurant can survive selling a handful of meals each night.
Our first full day in the Loire Valley we shopped at an outdoor market and had a nice lunch in Samur and then drove to 2-3 small villages around the river (I lose track). The Loire is the longest river in France and we crossed it several times as we traveled south. We also went champagne tasting, visited an underground village, saw many churches and a few chateaus (castles) and drove through countless vineyards. Some of that was during our second day–again I lose track…
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Too bad I couldn’t upload this yesterday for Independence Day.
“Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
Three hours after leaving Paris behind, we drove in to Bayeux (pronounced bay-ooh) and checked into La Tour Louise Guesthouse, the first of several old (1600-1700) guest homes we would stay in. Is it the age of the building (1700s), the stone steps, the old wooden, double sash windows that gives these old structures the ambience and….scent? Because there is a dampness in the walls that holds the heat or cold or smell from cooking. Nevertheless, it was a nice place, with an epic view of the Bayeux Cathedral from (wait for it) the bathroom window! The host was Wil; he explained that in France a guesthouse requires the owner to live on the premises. He also told us how to pronounce the names of the couple of places we were staying: Samur (sam-wah) and Beaune (bone-nee). Both turned out to be wrong….
That evening we drove to the landing beaches of Normandy, which was a great decision as it stays light until 10:00 and because it rained the next day. So we were able to walk on the eerily peaceful beach, past various memorials, German bunkers, and buoys in different colors that indicated where the battalions landed. Even before the invasion on that cold morning of June 6, 1944, three airborne divisions landed by parachute and glider behind the beaches. At 6:30 AM American, British and Canadian forces began history’s greatest amphibious assault. By the end of the day the Americans had secured a fragile hold on the strategically important beach that became know as Omaha Beach. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” you’ve seen a faithful and haunting reenactment of the fighting on Omaha Beach.
One thing I especially like about the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is that the crosses of those who were never identified are mixed in with the other graves. This powerful memorial (172.5 acres) overlooks a D-Day beach and the English Channel. Many more than the 9,387 represented by headstones were once buried here, but 81% of American families chose to bring their loved ones home to a final resting place on US soil. The ones who remain include 41 sets of brothers and 3 Medal of Honor winners. Over 1500 MIAs have a memorial on the grounds of the cemetery where all of their names are listed. Visiting the cemetery evoked the most emotion for me.
We also visited a museum dedicated to the Airborne unit and saw the church where a paratrooper hung for on the steeple for two hours (he had a broken foot) before being taken down. The French have kept an effigy of the paratrooper on the church for many years. There are several museums we didn’t see, but we did enjoy hanging around and soaking up the atmosphere of the villages. It’s clear that the surrounding towns have economies based on the tourists who come to Normandy–souvenir shops, cafes where veterans have signed the walls, and even a British style pub filled with D-Day books and the occasional picture of the town in the 1940s. But the fish and chips were pretty good….
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