Last month we enjoyed a fabulous family trip to France that was mainly centred around Paris, but included a few more locations as well. We started off with eight nights in an apartment rental in the Marais district of Paris, and then after our week in the capitol we picked up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle airport and headed out of town.
The Normandy region is a gorgeous part of France and could easily fill a week or two with great sights, but we were on a tight schedule and I decided to focus on two biggies; the town of Bayeux with it’s amazing 900+ year old tapestry and Mont St Michel, the incredible island cathedral/fortress on the border between Normandy and Brittany. Both are not fairly close to Paris but not quite within day trip range, about 3-4 hours away even on France’s speedy autoroutes. But they worked out perfectly as part of a speedy, five day tour through Northern France.
We arrived in the pretty little town of Bayeux a little after one pm and immediately got lost, hampered by a combination of poor maps and some sort of local race that had several major streets closed to traffic. Fortunately the town is small enough that was possible to just park in the most convenient lot and continue on foot, asking for directions along the way. Our first priority was lunch since the town seemed pretty deserted on a Sunday in low season and I wasn’t sure how many places would be open after lunch hours. We found a nice enough little place that had simple menu and settled in, but for one of us the meal ended up being a little more than he bargained for.
I had ordered a salad and the kids split a pizza, but my husband decided to try the burger “a la Normande”, figuring he might as well try something from the local region. It looked very good when the plate arrived but when he took his first bite his look of pleasure very quickly turned to puzzlement. The burger had lettuce and tomato and a thick layer of creamy camembert but tucked under the top of the bun was something else. My husband said it was kind of a strange mushy texture and tasted like nothing he’d ever eaten before. It looked sort of like a slice of soft pinkish cauliflower. It didn’t take us long to figure out that maybe we’d stumbled into an example of the French love of organ meats. The little pink slice was quickly removed and hidden discretely under some lettuce and my husband declared the rest of the burger to be very good. But we couldn’t help but ask him if he was finding himself wanting to moo or craving grass for the rest of the day.
After our interesting lunch we went off in search of the famous Bayeux tapestry, the 900 year old 70 metre long linen and wool embroidery which is housed in a museum on the edge of the town centre. We quickly realized how lucky we were to be visiting in the off season as we went past hundreds of yards of empty lines and walked right up to the ticket counter then on to the tapestry itself. The entry fee came with an audioguide which explains the story told on the 900 year old tapestry as you walk along it’s length. It comes in an adult and a child version and it does a fantastic job of explaining the story of the Battle of Hastings depicted in scenes like a comic book, complete with battleground noises in the background.
The guide starts automatically as you enter the slightly darkened room and you’re able to follow the story in the tapestry quite closely, with only about a thick pane of glass between you and the 900 year old cloth. There is a bit of obvious damage to parts of the tapestry but overall I was amazed at how vibrant the colours and clear the pictures were after all the years. It’s survival is especially impressive considering that it spent a good part of the 1800’s rolled up in a damp trunk and for several centuries of it’s history nothing at all is known of it’s whereabouts. We had done some research on the tapestry before our visit which supplemented the information given at the museum and the kids had watched a dramatization of the story of the tapestry several times on Youtube which went a long way towards holding their interest as we visited.
The museum is clearly designed to handle large crowds and as a result the audioguide is designed to keep people moving along the tapestry at a set pace without backtracking. Fortunately for us, the tapestry room was almost completely empty and we were able to go back and study the details of the stitching for as long as we wanted. The children’s audioguides seemed to do a good job of holding their attention and they were able to pick up a lot of details along the way.
After the opportunity to study a treasure like the Bayeux Tapestry, the rest of the museum was interesting but a bit anticlimactic. The displays describing medieval methods of weaving and dyeing cloth in particular, would have been good to see before viewing the tapestry itself. Still, we enjoyed the exhibits and the short English movie with shows several times every day.
After we finished at the museum we wandered around town a bit towards the enormous cathedral that dominates the centre of town. The cathedral dates to about the same time as the tapestry and it is thought that the tapestry was originally designed to hang around the interior of the building, allowing everyone to “read” the story of the battle in the pictures as the made the circuit of the building. The cathedral was stark but very beautiful and quite similar to many of the cathedrals found in southern England, just another example of how Northern France and England were governed as one country in the years following the Norman invasion.
Bayeux itself is a pretty little town with a river running through and pretty stone footbridges and waterwheels here and there. It was first major French town liberated after the D-day invasions and has quite a good World War Two museum on the outskirts of town that I remember visiting on another trip during my backpacking days. A family could easily fill a day in Bayeux, more if you visited the nearby D-day beaches and the town would make a nice overnight stop, but we decided to continue on to our next stop after our visit to the cathedral. After another confusing trip through the outskirts of town, including an episode where a policeman directed us down a tiny one lane road that came complete with a very irate Frenchman driving towards us at a high rate of speed we found our way back to the main highway and then on to our next stop in Northern France.