Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In Full Retreat


Honfleur, St-Malo, and Cherbourg, France

Map picture

If any of you are watching our schedule, you might notice that we are supposed to be visiting the British Island of Guernsey, but instead we are sitting at a dock in the French port of Cherbourg watching a bloody gale roaring outside. This is a new experience for us. Last evening just before dinner, the Captain came on with a ship wide announcement. At the time, we were at anchor in the port of Saint-Malo with sunny skies and only moderate winds. However, the weather forecast for the next day called for Gale Force winds and “dangerously high seas,” all of which required the Captain to cancel our trip to Guernsey, since it was going to require us to anchor offshore and use the tenders to go ashore. However, the approaching storm was forecast to be so severe, the Captain did not feel it was safe to even stay in Saint-Malo, nor was it wise to try to ride out the storm in the English Channel. After consultations with SilverSea, and some rapid footwork, dock space was acquired in the port of Cherbourg, France. We are not the only cruise ship that took cover; we were told that several other ships also have taken refuge in the harbor.

My hat is off to the shore excursion staff because with almost no advance preparation, they were able to assemble a quick tour of the Cherbourg area for early morning. We were lucky to get a spot on the bus, and while the winds were very strong, we were able to see the area before the rains hit about noon. Right now the rain and winds are so strong that I cannot even see the adjacent docks, and I can only imagine what it would have been like at sea.

Normandy, France

Since I have started with Cherbourg, let me complete our day. Our bus tour was around 4 hours, and for the most part it was a drive in the Normandy countryside, commonly called the hedgerow country. This is perhaps the most rural area in France.

Normandy, FranceWe drove through small country towns that looked little changed from the days of World War II. The countryside is covered with “hedgerows” which were planted in the Middle Ages to control water flow and still serve that same function today. However, it was the existence of these hedgerows that caused US troops so much difficulty during the invasion of France. The Germans could easily hide behind these and surprise our troops who had only the narrow lanes on which they could travel. It was a nightmare. Our guide told us that in this area, some 4,000 allied troops died per square mile during the Normandy invasion.

We stopped at a few towns for 30 minutes or so to look around, and then visited a lookout from which we could see the beach on which the Americans landed.

Normandy, France It was pretty in a way, but also very sobering. Because of the high winds and threating skies, I got almost no pictures, but at least the rain held off right to the end of the tour.

I do have one funny story to tell. In these small towns, they have men’s urinals literally right out on the street. Now call me prudish, but that did not seem like a great idea. I did learn that the best way to find a restroom was to visit a coffee shop or restaurant, order some coffee, etc., and then make use of their facilities which are always kept clean, unlike the outside stalls. Needing to “go,” we found a little restaurant and went to order some coffee. Unfortunately, not planning on being in France today, I had no euros, and to our surprise the establishment would not take a credit card. Chest fallen and ready to leave, a gentleman on the side told the owner to “put it on his tab.” He kept insisting, and finally I relented and kindly accepted his largesse. Feeling as if I should do something in return, I finally took a $20 bill over to his table where he sat with two other people. I said “I don’t know if you speak English, but I do want to thank you,” and as I did so I put the $20 bill in his hand. The entire table just broke out in a roar, and I stood there not having a clue what was so funny. Well, it turns out that the three people at the table were all on our bus and were sitting just behind me. I did not recognize them, obviously, so they were laughing all over the place at my feeble attempt to say “thanks” to a frenchy!

Now, having missed a couple of days, I will quickly try to get caught up on our travels. Two days ago we visited the city of Honfleur. We had arranged for a private car with the intention of seeing Honfleur, and then driving to Bayeux, France where the UNESCO World Treasure called the “Bayeux Tapestry” is housed. As we went down the gangway, I spotted a new BMW limo waiting, and assumed that was for us. Instead, I was cut off by a little guy named Erik who was holding a sign with our name. He quickly guided us off to the side where he had parked the family Renault! I knew we were in trouble when he asked what we would like to do for the day, meaning he had no clue. Fortunately, I have learned to be prepared for that question, so I suggested we visit St. Catherine’s Church in Honfleur. He seemed a little hesitant, but set off, first turning left, then right, then left again, until it was obvious he was lost. In the process, he had turned the wrong way up a one way street, been honked at by numerous drivers, and was already in a sweat. So I suggested he go to the City Center, the way for which was clearly marked by signs. Sure enough the Church was there. He pointed to it, and said to go ahead and visit the church, and he would park someplace nearby. When I asked if he could at least tell me a little about the church, he said he had not had time to read up on it, but he did hand me the Michelin Guide book to read; only one problem, it was in French!

Honfleur, France

At this point I am starting to fume – how can this happen yet again on this trip. So, Lisa and I wandered the center of Honfleur on our own, and then set off to Bayeux to see the tapestry. Curious now about Eric, I asked if he lived in the area. Well no, he said. It seems that he lives and works as a guide in Paris. When I asked how long it took to drive in from Paris, notice his answer; “the drive is about two hours for most people, but it takes me three hours.” I very soon learned why it takes poor Eric so long – he is terrified of driving. We spent almost 5 hours with him, much of it on high speed highways, and not once did he pass a car. If someone got behind him, he would slow down until they passed us by. When going up a hill, he even pulled over in the right-hand “slow lane” for use by trucks, even though traffic was roaring past us in a steady stream. He had both hands firmly gripped on the wheel, and he stared straight ahead with occasional nervous glances in the rear and side view mirrors. A few times, I attempted conversion, but it was fruitless. Poor Eric was at the limit of his capacity just driving, and adding conversation in the mix was way too much. So we rode for hours in complete silence, bouncing around in his little family Renault.

I was completely unprepared for the Bayeux Tapestry. I had assumed that I would witness some huge work of art that would cover an entire wall of some magnificent palace.

Bayeux, FranceInstead, we found the Tapestry in a converted seminary, where long lines awaited us to gain entry. The Tapestry turned out to stretch over 225 ft. in length, and was only around 2 ft. in width. It was completed in the 11th century, and today is probably the world’s most celebrated piece of needlework depicting the story of the Norman conquest of England. On our way out of town, we stopped at the Notre Dame Cathedral, Bayeux’s most important building. It was Sunday morning and services were just ending, so we got to hear the organ – a special treat.

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

As we were leaving Bayeux, Eric once again went right, left, right, etc., until after 15 minutes, we ended up where we started. Clearly puzzled, he turned left, this was the exact opposite of the way we had entered the city. In other words, unless the city had turned around during our visit, he was going the wrong way. It seemed to me that it was time for the trusty iPhone to once again come to the rescue, and in just a minute I had a map, and directions back to Honfleur. Eric did not want to listen to me, but finally admitted that perhaps he could use some help from my little toy. Thank goodness I intervened because the road he had taken would have gone a very long way in the wrong direction before connecting with the highway back to Bayeux, and then onto Honfleur.

When I got to the ship, I was furious about what had happened and determined to write our travel agent about the problem, when I took out the confirmation and noticed that we had been promised “a private car with an English speaking driver.” That is exactly what we got – no guide services involved. Kinda sad he was not at least a good driver, nor even knew where to go.

Yesterday, we once again had a private car with an English speaking driver, so I knew what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised when a very properly dressed young man showed up with a Citroen Limo. He was not a guide, but he sure knew the area and where we were going, and in the end, he thanked us for a fabulous day together! Go figure!

We left as early as we could and drove directly to the famous Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel, FranceThis spectacular granite mountain with its abbey spiraling high above the sea is considered a “Marvel of the Western World.” Originally, the mountain was completely surrounded by the ocean, and could only be reached across the sand when the massive tidal flow exposed the sandy beaches. Long ago a causeway was constructed to allow visitors to drive to the rock, but that causeway completely disrupted the tidal flow, and today the mountain is surrounded by sand, not water. However, while we were able to drive right up to the mountain, that will soon be history. The causeway is being removed, and a massive project is underway to return the tidal flows to their original form. In the future to reach the mountain, one will have to travel on an elevated tramway.

To reach the Abby at the top, requires climbing over 200 very steep steps under very crowded conditions. In fact, it becomes so crowded as the day progresses, that the crowd becomes gridlocked and people try to get down, while others are fighting to climb upwards. We climbed up to the first ramparts, grabbed a coffee and croissant, and got out while the going was good. It is worth seeing once, but climbing the top was not in our game plan. Instead, we had our driver take us to the medieval town of Dinan.

Dinan, FranceBy this point, Lisa and I were so tired of walking medieval towns, that before long we gave up the ghost and went for a quick drive around the city before calling it a day.

And so, we sit here in Cherbourg, where if anything, the storm outside has grown even stronger as I have been typing. The ship is scheduled to depart this evening at 7pm for a quick run across the English Channel and into Southampton, where we have a scheduled “turn around” day. I don’t know, the ship, even though it is tied up at a pier in a secluded harbor, is being tossed around like a tin car, so I am wondering about that 7 pm departure.

So, there will be more to follow. I have the pictures for everything except today posted, and if I can, I’ll get those up today. Hope everyone is well.


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