A Travellerspoint blog

November 2005

On Normandy

and why I like chocolate pastries for breakfast

On the map, Belfast and Caen are only a few inches apart. Enough to fit your thumb between. The bottom part of England is squeezed between the two, with some little bits of water cutting through it all. So you'd think I could make my way from one to the other in no time at all.


I left the dorm in Belfast at 8 in the morning and got to Caen (one time zone further away) at about 9 at night. Chalk most of it up to waiting and running around: first to drop off the dorm key, then to drop off Neal's bags at a friend's, then a half-hour to the bus depot, and hour to Belfast International, and a 2-hour wait for the plane. Then it was an hour and a half to Paris, an hour's ride down to l'Opera (where I caught a glimpse of the beautiful Lafayette and Printemps Christmas displays), an hour's wait for the train, and finally two hours to Caen.

I stayed at a small and very cosy place called Hotel St. Etienne. I arrived to find a guest refusing to leave the room I booked, and an apologetic receptionist offering me a bigger room for two nights at the same price. Bonus! I got a double room with full bathroom for 23 Euro a night. It was a typical European hotel: a tight winding staircase, worn wood stairs, cramped but clean quarters, and views onto one of the most incredible cities in the world. My last two nights were spent in the room I booked originally - the attic. I had to bend into the last bit of staircase, and then again to get through the door. I could stand up fully in only two places in the room, and could just about put my feet up on the bed from the cleverly placed commode. But the view! The view! I popped my head out the skylight to find myself on the rooftop, with the pigeons and antennas, looking out onto the rooftops and across to the Abbeye des Hommes just a few streets away. It was breathtaking, like something out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I giggled the whole way up the staircase at the sheer wonder and strangeness of it all.

My first day there I'd planned to just walk around and get my bearings. But one thing led to another, and before you know it I was on the bus to Courselles-sur-Mer, an hour away. Such a beautiful ride through the countryside, scattered with memorials and war cemeteries and fields and sheep, sheep, sheep. And then we turned the corner at Luc-sur-Mer and there it was, the English Channel, so incredibly blue and vast and unexpected - something I'd waited so long to see. Turns out it was one of many times that I completely misread the (incredibly complicated) bus schedule, and the kind driver offered to drive me up to the Juno Beach Centre as I was the last passenger at the last stop. A winding walk around the sailboat canal and across a parking lot and there it was, the first D-Day beach I've ever seen, not the one my Grandfather landed on but still a Canadian landing point and still something beyond words, almost sacred. I collected shells for each of the cousins, a film canister of sand, pictures of the waves, the beach, the leftover bunkers, the memorial markers. I wrote my Grandfather's name in the sand at my Grandmother's request, and headed back to the city centre to catch the bus back. The Juno Centre, closed for lunch, would have to wait till my next visit on Friday.

The next few days I walked myself out. That tends to be the way I travel alone - going round and round and round (what's with European cities and their need to build streets in a circle around the main square?) and getting lost, walking until my feet and my legs are cramped and I'm so hungry I can't see straight to find food. But I saw William the Conquerer's castle (turns out you can't actually visit inside the castle - there is no inside. Most was blown to bits during WWII) and the Abbey des Hommes, where 10,000 Caen civilians spend the D-Day invasion and the months that followed. There were knicks and holes and missing pieces leftover from the fighting.

I also spent a day at Memorial - Cean's 'Museum for Peace' - which gave the history of WWII and the repercussions of war on civilians and the rest of the world. I saw pictures of Caen after the invasion - nothing but a few broken walls, with rubble piled high in the streets. It was unrecognizable as a city, and I wondered how they managed to build it all back up again. I looked, as I always do, for pictures of my Grandfather everywhere. I don't know why - what are the chances I'd see him, one soldier among so many? But I though I caught a glimpse of someone who looked just like him on an old roll of film, and I didn't stay to watch it again to make sure. I liked keeping the idea that it might be him.

On November 11th (which turns out to be a holiday in France, BTW), I headed out to Juno Beach again, this time for the Remembrance Day ceremonies. I met up with Canadians all along the way - some from Toronto, Sherbrooke, Victoria. We were all headed the same way, a busfull of Canadians in the middle of Normandy. Because the busses only ran in the afternoon for the holiday (unbeknownst to all of us), we had only about a half hour to explore the museum. I wish I'd had more time, or stayed later the Tuesday before. The Ceremony itself was beautiful: people came from across the beach towns, there were French veterans and school kids who sang each national anthem. During the two minutes of silence, I closed my eyes and heard the waves, the seagulls, the wind. I don't even have the word to describe it.

At the reception afterwards, a woman from a nearby town came by to chat with us. I mentioned to her that my Grandfather had landed at St-Aubin-sur-Mer on D-Day, and - due to distance and crazy bus schedules - I simply didn't get out to see the beach. And in a flash she was pulling me out to her car, this nice elderly lady, talking a mile a minute and whizzing us down the road. I had about 45 minutes to catch my bus, and in that time we saw the beach, the memorial, the road the soldiers took, the town, her B&B. She gave me a collection of postcards her son made using Canadian memorabilia washed up on the beach, and I collected a quick rock and another film canister of sand.

It was surreal, perfect. My trip had saved the best for last.

Posted by tway 13:13 Archived in France Comments (0)

Back to Belfast

Or: Why a place looks so different the second time around

This trip, I insisted on seeing things. First Giant's Causeway, followed by a list of every conceivable point of interest that could be got to by bus, train, begged ride, or on foot. So I overpacked my (now put to rest) awkward Roots duffle bag with borrowed wool sweaters, three (!!) pairs of shoes, a hairdryer (with what will turn out to be the wrong adapter), a scrapbook for Neal, my jogging stuff (never to be taken out once), and an umbrella. For some reason, Neal doesn't own an umbrella. People in Belfast just walk around oblivious of the rain.

My trip there was a mad dash the wrong way across the country - from Montreal, to Ottawa, to Toronto... then on the plane to Halifax and finally on to Belfast. I was beat before we were even over the ocean. In the half-empty plane, I managed to get the entire 3-seat middle row to myself, until the loud Irish family in back of me started to spread out across the plane like leaky custard - first to the window seats on the left, then the right, then on the end of my row. I managed to lay claim to the seat right next to mine by sticking the in-flight magazine and safety manual all over it, but still the grungy son filled half the space with his elbow. I gave him a flight's worth of dirty looks over the top of my book.

From landing to seeing the light of day took an instant. I've never gone through customs so fast, and my bag thumped down the carrousel about 5th in line. Then a twist and a turn and before I was even ready there was Neal, just as surprised to see me so quickly. And so there I was, finally here.

Neal had booked us a space in the dorm at Queen's University (after a stern warning from the dormmistress that there'd be spot checks for shared accommodation) - a nasty, smelly little forgotten room with a snail crawling up the wall near the bed. It was the saddest looking place I'd ever seen, but it was cheap and it was central enough. With all the places we ended up staying, it was mostly a space to keep our luggage anyway.

The next morning we headed out extremely early for the 3-hour jouney up to Giant's Causeway. A trainride to Carrickfergus, a bus to Larne (a wreck of a small town), and then a long, bumpy journey up the Antrim Coast to the eighth wonder of the world. The trip alone was incredible: coastlines made of cliffs and pastures and crashing waves. Neal claimed to see a seal in the water watching the bus go by, and at some point I was fighting off nausea as the bus rolled up, down, bump, bump, bump along the teensiest of roads. But the Causeway was gorgeous. Not hugely spectacular, but quiet and vast and windy. I couldn't believe it: something like it, here at home, would be cornoned off and you'd need a ticket and a long wait in line before being allowed a glimpse of the place. But here it was just there, for anyone - free and left to grow wild. I loved it.

The weekend was spent in Donegal with Neal's brother and his girlfriend. The dang roads are aparently the same everywhere - haphasardly asphalted over rocks and cow poo and lord knows what else so that in the end you get a big bumpy mess that sets your stomach rolling. The scenery changed as we left North Ireland for Donegal - the green pastures and fluffy sheep turned into red-brown peat hills with crazy rams perched on the edge of cliffs to get at the grass. Philip drove us up the scariest dirt path in the world to the Slieve League cliffs, and I've never felt such wind in my life. Neal tells me German tourists are notorious for getting too close to the edge and tumbling over in the wind. The view is spectacular, almost terrifying. On the drive back home we stop at Rossnowlagh beach, where it's piss-pouring rain to the point where we can't even peak around the umbrella, yet the sun is out. It was the strangest felling - almost euphoric. I took a pic of 3 French surfers talking away in the rain, and a dog racing deliriously across the beach. Neal made a half-joking remark about the rainbow being our hope for the future, and we both laughed at how cheesy and true that sounded. It was probably the best moment I spent in Ireland.

After much shopping, time with parents, Neal getting some studying done and me reading away in coffee shops, we decide to spend our one free day with James in Fermanagh. James taught in Quebec with Neal all last year, so it was nice to meet up with someone he and I both knew. James picked us up in Enniskillin, and we went for breakfast before heading off to his parents' farm in the country. And what a farm! It was all something out of a Dick and Jane book - so lovely and untouched and almost 'quaint', although quaint doesn't do justice to how good and welcome and real it felt. James' mother was in the kitchen, this beautiful green linolium room with an old fashioned stove and a calendar on the wall, cooking scones and making tea for us. I felt like I'd gone back in time, and I felt at home. James took us on a tour of the farm (which I later, quite stupidly, told Canada Customs about)- the anti-social sheep, the moving pile of cows, the old abandoned house that Neal insisted on 'exploring'. He then drove us out to see two stubborn donkeys, a long row of abandoned houses, and a cemetery dating from just after 1000 AD. The tombstones had long ended up on the ground, but you could still decipher a face in one of them. I made some sort of respectful thank-you prayer for the opportunity to see such a sight - which was my way of giving myself permission to snap a pic of that too.

On Friday we got up early again for the longish trip to Dublin. Our reservations were at Marina House in Dun Laoghaire - a wonderful little hostel about 20 minutes out of the city centre. Due to some mix up, though, we ended up having to spend night 2 in the most unwelcoming litte farce of a B&B a little farther into the town. The first night Neal and I simply stayed in the town, though, and made our own supper for the first time the whole trip (minus the speed-eating incident in Donegal). The next night we met up with Phil (aka Pardus) who took us for a drink and then over to a nice little Italian place, where I had (at last! at last!) a salad for supper. What bliss not to have something fried staring up from my plate! The next morning Phil took us over to Kilmainham Goal (although not before we introduced him to Queen of Tarts - THE best cake shop in the world, like something out of a dream).

The whole weekend passed in a blur, with Monday always on the mind. Twelve days went by in a flash, and there we were back at the airport again, saying goodbye to counter the hello, counting the exact number of days till Christmas, and not really sure of what comes next after that. Just that there's always a next, when you really want it. So we just go with that. It's worked pretty good so far.

Posted by tway 16:43 Archived in Northern Ireland Comments (4)

Learning how to pronounce Caen

sunny 12 °C

Aparently, the city is pronounced "cahn" - as opposed to "ca-ENNE", as I've been saying for months. I learned that from the surly man behind the counter at St. Lazarre station, who gave me the crazy-tourist look and shoved the train tickets through the little metal box. Ah, well.

I arrived here last night after a long journey from Belfast. But it's a beautiful town and the weather is wonderful. Still have " more wonderful days to go yet!

Posted by tway 09:01 Archived in France Comments (0)

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