Jumièges

The Romanesque Abbey of Jumièges

We wake up on a clear sunny day in the camper area of Jumièges, not too far away from the abbey. While we’re having breakfast a multitude of baby goats appears from a wooden hut just beyond the fence and start to roam around the lawn. They’re too cute not to take some pictures. A young man comes out of the hut waving at us. At first, we think he wants us to leave, but soon we realize he is inviting us in. We walk past the fence among the goats,  first staring at us and then giving some confidence playing with their paws on our legs.

Baby goats coming out of the barn

The breeder tells us that he is milking in the stable and asks if we want to join him and take some photos. It’s an offer we can not refuse! He’s really kind and we follow him in the small but neat and clean stable, that, by the light look of the wood has been recently built. To greet us the looks of a dozen goats that stare at us while chewing straw.

Curious goats watch us at our entry into the barn

Our friend, armed with a bucket, approaches a goat and, in a relaxed way, begins to milk her. After a while, he invites us to try. A bit hesitant and embarrassed, we go ahead and realize that it is by no means easy.

At milking school

He teaches us how to hold the hands and how to tighten. Ste is up,  but even following the instructions, he can’t pull out a great deal of milk. Then it’s my turn to try, so I kneel near to the goat in the middle of the straw and, with a little fatigue, I milk her! The result of my work is just two fingers of milk, and we’ve been told that one liter is needed for a cheese. It would probably take us the all day then! Happy for the unexpected experience, we leave the stable welcomed by the baby goats and warmly say goodbye to our teacher.

Jumièges Abbey is surrounded by green meadows and tall trees

We walk to the Jumièges Abbey, which has just opened. Two tour buses have poured through the entrance. To avoid the crowd we do the visit in the opposite direction to that recommended by the map provided at the entrance so we are able to enjoy the architectural complex almost always alone.

The ruins of the Abbey still convey a sense of majesty

The Romanesque building, part of a monastery, which still survives a small portion of the cloister, is preserved. Only the tallest masonry remains, giving the idea of the abundance of the abbey architecture.

Our Norman adventure ends here. We get to the van and head towards Rouen, from where, after a short break, we drive back to Holland.

 

Tips

Jumièges Abbey: 6,50 €

 

Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel, one of the most iconic places in Normandy

After breakfast with pan au chocolat, we are off to Mont Saint-Michel, whose shape stands out to the north of the camper area where we spent the night. Arriving in the area, all the roads come to a large parking lot from which is possible to walk or board one of the many free shuttle buses that cover the 2 km distance to the island. In recent years, Mont Saint-Michel has been subjected to a number of works to restore the maritime character of the site, which had been gradually distorted by the accentuated sedimentation. Now the island is reachable by a bridge-walkway designed to support the sustainable development of the bay and the abbey.

Access to the fortified island through the bridge-walkway

At the date and time of our visit to the site, the tide is very low and we can safely walk around the Mont. Studying the tide cycles in advance, one can enjoy the mountain surrounded by the sea and witness the water tide rising “like galloping horses”. Once past the fortified walls that surround the island, it’s all about a steep, narrow alleyway packed with touristic boutiques that accompany various walkways and terraces overlooking the coast and the sea.

View from one of the numerous overlooks of Mont Saint-Michel on the terraces and spiers below

Despite the chaotic touristic face of the place, the complex seems to have maintained its medieval atmosphere. However, the restoration is perceivable in the excessive aesthetic perfection of the architectures. Moving uphill, we find a tiny alley mentioned in the guide, only 50 cm wide and, after some photographic overlooks, we arrive at the abbey on the mountaintop. The abbey is characterized by ample and diversified environments and its tour takes about 1h to be completed.

One of the interiors of the abbey, covered by an impressive barrel vault

After the tour, we walk down the narrow streets of the village and venture on foot on the sandy terrain around the Mont discovering the prospects and glimpses of the less known side of the fortified island. Occasionally the sand becomes soft and damp, forcing us to walk past the rocks to avoid saltwater pools. By the time we get back to the car lunchtime has already passed.

Mont Saint-Michel saw from the coast
Grazing sheep in Lower Normandy not far from Mont Saint-Michel

We eat a quick bite at the St. Michel Café, a small bar that we find on the way, and start heading towards Upper Normandy on the way back. By browsing the dedicated Meridiani dossier, we find an article on the Route des Chaumières, houses with “the hair” or the straw roof, typical of the area. The area on which the Route runs is along the route we have taken anyway, so we decide to go there.

A “chaumière”, a rural house with a characteristic roof made with wheat straw, rye or with reed stems
Unexpected surprise along the Route des Chaumières

We leave from Marais-Vernier in the direction of Notre-Dame-de-Bliquetuit, through the Parc Naturel Regional des Boucles de la Seine Normande. The route is gorgeous, surrounded by greenery, and crosses small villages, many of which count numerous chaumières. As we stop to take some pictures we get complaints by one owner reminding us that the house is a private property. We conclude the tour with a visit to the really enchanting 17th-century chaumière mill of Hauville.

The seventeenth-century chaumière mill in Hauville at sunset
Geometries of the plowed fields in front of the Hauville mill

The beautiful and intense day ends in Jumièges, a place known for its abandoned abbey, which we can see between the tops of the trees, approaching the town. We arrive around 8pm so we decide to leave the visit to the abbey for the next day and have dinner with galettes at La Bonne Famille . We find confirmation of the idea that we had that in Normandy with the term “crêpes” only the sweet crepes are indicated, while for the salads, the word “galettes” is used; in Provence, we had seen the same term “crêpes” for the sweet version of the dish as well as for the salad and “galettes” for the crusts prepared with buckwheat flour. Anyway, the galette ham and goat cheese is great, like the chocolate crêpes to follow. Drink, a glass of cider.

After dinner we go in search of the camper area indicated by the Furgoperfecto nearby, with no services but no charge. There are already some campers parked at the edge of the gravel area so we stop the van on the grass ahead for a bit of privacy. From here, the upper part of the abbey is clearly visible stretching out above the trees.

 

Tips

Mont Saint-Michel: free. Parking: 6 € for 2h30′, 11,70 € all day. Abbey: 10 €

The D-Day beaches

We wake up on a beautiful sunny day in the parking lot in front of the Plage du Butin. We spend the morning visiting Honfleur, a delightful Calvados town, located on the mouth of the Seine. We take a walk down to the quaint harbor, continuing along the narrow and graceful streets of the Old Town. We note many art studios and venues where to enjoy crêpes and other local specialties. I look down at the ten-century Lieutenance building located at the entrance of the harbor, the former seat of the town administration and the ancient gate of the town, now being restored.

The cheerful little harbor of Honfleur

After filling the tank, we head towards the coastline where the historic landing in Normandy – the so-called D-Day – took place. Along the road, we stop at Le Fournil de Bénerville, a pretty boulangerie-cake shop that attracts our attention by the way the tables and the outdoor benches are built with white painted pallets. As we have seen two years ago on the trip to Provence, we note that most people, even young people, do not speak a single word of English. They often understand it but answer exclusively in French.

Continuing on our itinerary, down the D27 we are attracted by a bucolic corner in the countryside: a tree-lined shore on a stream with grazing cows on the opposite side. We feel the urge for a regenerating stop, bathe in fresh and transparent water and clinging to the sun.

Break by the river in the Calvados countryside

Exploration of the D-Day sites
We resume with a vigorous coffee – the van is equipped with a mini-moca – and let’s go, now close to the area we intend to explore today. The crossing of the Pegasus Bridge, just before the village of Bénouville, bring us back to more than half a century ago. The grip of this retractable bridge, built by Gustave Eiffel in 1871, allowed the crossing of allied troops coming from the sea. In 1994, the original bridge was replaced by a wider and more modern version (the original is exposed in the Mémorial Pegasus park).

From here in 40 minutes we arrive at Arromanches-les Bains. From the plateau overlooking the coast are visible concrete blocks in the water, not far from the beach, what remains of the artificial harbor built during the World War II. The bright colors of the sea and the beach, which today seems a quiet and pleasant place, contrast with the idea of the events that took place here. Before leaving, in the intent to visit the D-Day beaches with greater awareness, we watched the Normandy Surviving D-Day documentary and the Steven Spielberg Saving Private Ryan movie, which resumes the events that happened on these beaches.

The beach with prefabricated harbor remains in front of Arromanches-les-Bains

Our next step is the German batteries of Longues-sur-Mer: the reinforced concrete structures are well-resized structures in the countryside, still equipped with cannons designed to hit  targets up to 20 km away.

The batteries of Longues-sur-Mer camouflaged in the countryside near the coast

Along the way we notice roadsigns pointing to the “Ferme Félícíté: pommeau, cidre, calvados“. Curious from the start of the holiday of tasting the cider, fermented apple juice characteristic of Normandy, we follow the signs and shortly we find ourselves in the garden of a local producer who welcomes us into his “shop” by tasting the three different types of cider he produces: dry, semi-dry and sweet. The flavor initially reminds us of beer but with a remarkably fruity note. We buy a box of six mixed cider bottles (€ 16.30).

Overview of the different products obtained from the apple at the small local firm Ferme Félícíté

The next and last stop of our itinerary is the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. We are impressed by the vastness of the cemetery-memorial, made up of a gloomy and well-groomed meadow, dotted with innumerable white crosses, seemingly equal to each other. We approach and begin to read the names carved on each of them, state of origin, date of birth, and death. In front of some of them, there are sporadic flowers, roses or small American flags. From the cemetery is visible Omaha Beach, another site on which landings took place.

The impressive American memorial cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer
Alternated to the white crosses there are tombstones shaped as David star for Jewish soldiers

In the late afternoon, we head to the south-west part of Normandy where Mont Saint-Michel is located, almost on the border with Brittany. The plan is to go to the area so that we can move on the next morning directly to visit the fortified island. We stop for the night at the motorhome area reported by Furgoperfecto, La Bidonnière. The small hill village, fortress, and church are already visible in the distance to the horizon.

 

Tips

World War II sites visited are free

AC La Bidonniere: campervan + 2 pax + electricity = 10,70 €, shower not included. Relatively cheap accomodation in an area where all the alternatives are quite expensive

 

NORMANDY

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It was at least three years that we fantasized about Normandy as a possible travel destination. The information gathered about its weather, often brisk, makes us choose the late spring as the time of the year to try to venture between the Côte d’Albâtre and the Mont Saint-Michel. Once again, since Stefano lives in The Hague, we decide to arrange the short trip in a van, leaving from The Netherlands. Because of the beautiful weather and the few tourists around, we are definitely charmed by this corner of France historically known for the allies landing during World War II. Both the coast, characterized by white cliffs that remind us of the views seen in Sussex, and the beautiful inland countryside, dotted with pastures, farms and tiny villages with straw roof houses, fill our hearts. To crown the short but intense path, the famous small fortified island with the sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel Michael.

Travel log

Period
5 days (19-23 may 2017)
Distance traveled
1600 km
Cost per person
250 €
Transportation
campervan

Tips

Travel planning: Lonely Planet Francia settentrionale e centrale, dedicated Meridiani dossier and Turisti per caso travel logs

We preferred to skip the highway, where possible, to drive on secondary roads like the Route des Chaumieres to appreciate the magic of houses with straw roof typical of this area

Plan the visit to Mont Saint-Michel at the arrival of the high tide to witness the rising water coming “like galloping horses”

Find places to park your van and spend the night on Furgoperfecto