Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A few days in Normandy

I looked up from unpacking my suitcase to see my roommate Andrea standing in the doorway of my room. Turns out she was off to the beach in Normandy for the weekend. Would I like to go? It’s been a cold and rainy summer in Paris, so the possibility of a weekend on a sunny French beach was intriguing, to say the least. And so it was I found myself two days later on a train traveling north through the French countryside in pursuit of one warm-weather memory to carry me through the depths of winter.

As the train traveled north, the gray of Paris gave way to the sunny brightness of summer. Sun at last. Seemed an age since I’d seen it. I met up with Andrea and her friend Gregory, a Greek musician in a gypsy orchestra, at Eu. Faced with a day that was sheer perfection, what else was there to do but head to the beach for a picnic?

Lying on a beach in Normandy can be a strange experience. No matter how idyllic the weather, or how blue the sea, it’s impossible not to imagine what it must have been like for the thousands of troops that fought and died landing here over 60 years ago. Even at beaches that didn’t see landings on D-Day, the ghosts of World War II are almost palpable - incredible that their presence stays so fresh all these years later. It’s a sensation I hadn’t experienced before while living in France, the sense of history making its presence known with a capital H. Then again, this is the first time I’ve visited a place where the loss of life was so massive and so recent.

The beauty of the setting makes the sensation even eerier. And Normandy is beautiful. Sheer cliffs, called falaises, rise dramatically from the shore. Vibrant blue water dominates the horizon. Rolling green hills peel off into the countryside. Seagulls make that seagully noise.

Other then haunted beaches, the Norman coast boasts a network of trails called the Chemin Vert that link up the various towns. Once upon a time, it was a railway, but the railway fell into disuse and the local municipality turned it into a series of walking paths. Andrea is a great fan of randonée, which is the French word for traipsing through the countryside. So the next day, we set off on a branch of the trail to see what we could find.

To my absolute delight, wild blackberry bushes line pretty much the whole path. For me, that was definitely the main attraction. I’m an inveterate wildcrafter and gathering blackberries is one of my favorite pastoral activities. Other than that, the walking is mostly through a tight green corridor of trees, enlivened by a rare view of countryside here and there. Pretty and worth doing if you have the time, but not one of the more dramatic trails I’ve been on. Several hours later, sporting very blue hands and a very full bag of wild blackberries, we stumbled off the trail onto a beach to meet up with Gregory who’d elected to stay behind and swim.

A few more hours on the beach, and we headed off to a perfect little restaurant in Le Treport. While the area is known for mussels, in my opinion it’s the sea snails and the oysters that really dominate, requiring only a hint of lemon to make you want to thank whatever god you believe in that you were born with taste buds. It’s weekends like this that make endless weeks of gray rainy summers all worthwhile.

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