I have written before that I like France. Of course, not everything is perfect about France but show me a nation that is perfect right now in any case but… well…. you’re on holiday. Holidays are about relaxation. Not sure why, but France is always somewhere I can relax easily. Spain as well. For some reason, Italy is not quite there for me but that is personal taste. Not sure why these three countries come in together here but…. never mind.
I would not claim to an expert on France. My year of living here was something like twenty-four summers ago and my French has suffered as my Dutch has improved. I can still read fairly well and get in to the swing of the language after a short while but let’s not even try to pretend it is fluent.
But it is also a lack of familiarity that can be so rewarding when you head somewhere that is, effectively, new to you. It breeds excitement. This year we had a week’s break and so could not quite justify driving to Provence – the last side of Mont Ventoux will have to wait! – and some days need to be saved for what is going to be a fairly extensive trip in the winter. So somewhere we could get to with one day’s drive was the target.
After a lot review and consideration of different locations in Germany or Belgium, France came on top again. Familiarity? Perhaps, but the area we chose was new to us. Normandy. Of course, a well-known area and well-visited. Mont Saint-Michel is an iconic landmark and the D-Day Beaches and Bayeux Tapestry ensure that there was more than enough to keep us (and thousands others) occupied.
So Normandy is not somewhere unknown, of course. Perhaps because it is well-known we did not expect is just how much peace and quiet we would get. Solitude. In our Gite the only noise to be heard was the birds singing. No major cities nearby suited us fine. It was the wide open, rolling countryside that was most striking. Perfect to explore on foot or by bike. Well kept, welcoming. Peaceful.
Of course there are the sights. I have written already of Mont Saint-Michel, which was a slight personal disappointment once on the island but remained spectacular to behold whilst crossing the bridge by foot. To visit the D-Day beaches is a different sense of history. Especially remarkable is the American Cemetery near to Utah Beach. Perhaps not as many visitors as Mont Saint-Michel but still an impressive number, all of whom moved through the white crosses and Stars of David in silence, looking at the names, the diverse places of origin; New York, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma….. Far away…. When you have just seen the waves crashing again the beaches along the Normandy coast and the imposing remains of German batteries it makes you realise what those who graves are marked so simply went through on that day.
There is so much to see but still this is not a place that was overpowered by tourism despite such sights. Perhaps if we had been staying in one of the towns or nearer the major sights there would have been more of a feeling of crowds but, in the small towns near to where we were staying, it was pleasantly tranquil. Of course on main roads there were plenty of cars and trucks but several times I would cycle through a village and have the feeling that my presence had just doubled the traffic for the day.
A quick sidenote. I cycled a couple of times on these main roads. What is it about France that a cyclist just feels safe, plenty of room given by drivers of all forms of vehicle. Apart from one British car.
I hope it stays this way. But that is a form of hypocrisy. We liked it and would go back. It takes a few more people like us and the number of visitors goes up. More tourists and local culture starts to be overwhelmed. It will never get as bad as some areas of Spain that seem to be giant golf courses but it is a fragile balance between wanting to see rustic France, refreshing in the feeling that the rhythm of life is one that has been followed for decades, and undermining it through your very presence.
Of course, tourism will also mean a boost to the economy and work. So perhaps it is selfish to want to keep it to myself. But, it will remain, for now, a haven of relaxation. Rolling hills, a glass of cider, the only sound that of birds singing in the evening. Add that to the memories above and it is another reason why I find myself writing again that I like France, so much.