Unlike some of our other cruises, the Grand France cruise was packed with activity from the beginning. The Baroness had sailed at 6:30 PM on the day we embarked, unusually early. Even then, we had taken a brief cruise of the Seine before we headed to Normandy. The second day was action packed with two separate stops, one for Giverney and the second for The Lion Hearts castle. In between, we had the traditional welcome dinner and were introduced to the staff and crew.
We were fortunate indeed to have an excellent hotel manager in Celina Sousa, one of the kindest and most caring we had encountered. She was very concerned by the Senior Rambler’s missing luggage, and lack of spare clothes and so we worked out a plan so that he could change into his robe and pajamas while the staff washed and ironed his one outfit. After wearing the same clothing two days in a row, he was very happy to have something clean to wear.
Emmanuelle Bonnier, our cruise director, was equally proactive in trying to wrest the missing bag from the clutches of Air France. She called them several times a day, getting the run-around each time, until finally they admitted, that the luggage had been at Charles de Gaulle all along. On the 9th day it would be delivered to Lyon after we had transferred to the SS Catherine. So even though we had a few problems on the cruise to Normandy, the kindness of the staff more than made up for our inconvenience.
The staff’s incredible service would continue on the second half of the cruise when we transferred to the SS Catherine. I will never forget the quick action of the Baroness’ lady butler, Valentina. The Senior Rambler takes a blood thinner and what would be a bruise on me, is a bleeding cut for him. He had evidently banged his arm somewhere on board and his arm was bleeding. She noticed it even before we did and appeared wearing plastic gloves and armed with peroxide and a band-aid. She quickly cleaned the cut, used the antiseptic and put on a band-aid with practiced skill. We were not in a suite and so technically, we shouldn’t even have been helped by a butler, but this was just a small example of their concern.
The action-packed schedule on the Baroness continued on our second full day of the cruise. This was the day we would visit the Normandy beaches which turned out to be the high point of the cruise for the Senior Rambler.
Again we had two options. The first was an all day tour of the Normandy beaches with stops at Arromanche and Juno and Sword Beaches. Naturally the British and Canadian cruisers joined this group. They would stop at Arromanche for lunch on their own after viewing a film of the landing in its 360 degree cinema. Arromanche also had many shops where they had an opportunity to buy souvenirs if they chose, as there would be no chance to do this at the beaches. We were surprised to find that these once bloody battlefields now served both an outdoor museum and a seaside vacation spot for the local residents.
The Ramblers on the other hand, decided to take the second option. This was first a stop at Bayeux to see the famous tapestry with time on our own for lunch in the pretty little town. We would then re- board our bus for the journey to Omaha Beach where the D-Day landing of the American troops was so graphically shown in Saving Private Ryan. Our guide Irene, however, made sure our bus driver took a route that went past Sword, Gold and Juno beaches on the way to Omaha beach and American cemetery there.
But first Bayeux. Our bus ride took us mainly through rural Normandy where many contented cows grazed. Irene proudly stated that they were a special breed, Norman (Normande) cows.
Those of us who are familiar with the Holsteins of Chic-Fil-A fame, thought they looked just like them until Irene pointed out that Norman cows, unlike Holsteins wear the marks of spectacles around their eyes. And so they did. I didn’t get a photo of any Norman cows wearing their glasses from our moving bus but here is one from the web. The breed had been around since Viking times and give rich milk that is well suited for the making of the many cheeses produced in Normandy. We did pass by an American tank en route, painted a bright green, and evidently a war memorial.
Bayeux, like many towns in Normandy, dates back to Roman times and is only 4 miles from the sea. Duke William of Normandy, later William the First, King of England set sail from the nearby shore on his successful invasion of England in 1066. The magnificent Bayeux cathedral of Notre Dame also dates from the 11th century, as does the Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England.
It is displayed in a stone building in Bayeux that once housed a seminary. Legend says that it was embroidered by Queen Matilda and her ladies as they waited for the successful warriors to return. Like many legends, it probably isn’t true but it makes a nice story.Even today, historians are not sure of the exact origin of the tapestry. It may have been commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux,
to commemorate the successful invasion as he played a prominent role in the event as William’s half-brother. It may even have been embroidered by English monks.
Wherever it came from , it provides crewel-work time capsule of life in Normandy in the 11th century. As a retired history professor, I was very familiar with the tapestry and was anxious to see it for myself. When I did, I have to say that I was disappointed. It looks just like it does in the pictures. The tapestry is displayed behind glass in a darkened room, and one shuffles slowly past its 60 ft. length as one of many listening to their audiovox players. Photos do not do justice to many things, the Grand Canyon comes to mind, but the Bayeux Tapestry was not one of them.
Fortunately the town of Bayeux was a great place to have a relaxing stroll. Since we were on our own, for lunch, we hoped to enjoy a snack at one of the many sidewalk cafes near the cathedral. Unlike the nearby town of Caen, Bayeux had suffered little damage in WWII as the Germans had concentrated their defenses in Caen. In fact, it was the first town liberated after the Allied landing.
The local specialty is a Galette or buckwheat crepe with various savory fillings. However we Ramblers are not fond of savory crepes, having grown up with their jelly or apple sauce filled cousins, so we did not try them. I know, no sense of adventure. We strolled down one of the main streets that leads to the cathedral although we didn’t go in.
After all the activity of the last two days, it was pleasant to just take a leisurely stroll. Some of our fellow passengers had already chosen a place to eat, but nothing looked just right. We went into the courtyard of one of the larger restaurants but it was jam-packed with families on holiday and we quickly left. The Ramblers finally settled on a tiny place, staffed solely by a friendly and attractive young woman. After looking at her tiny menu we settled on something very ordinary, deciding to share an order of fish sticks and chicken fingers. I know what you are thinking, you are in France and you order fish sticks!!! Well yes, and as it turned out it was an excellent choice.
Neither the fish nor the chicken were pre-packaged, they were cooked beautifully and came with two different and tasty sauces. It was a very pleasant lunch, just enough to fortify us for the rest of our trip.
We took our time walking back to our meeting place, noting the old mill as well and a more up-scale restaurant on the other side of the lazy river.
But we had no regrets. We were well fortified for our visit to Omaha Beach. We later learned that there was yet another WWII cemetery in Bayeux, this one for British troops who died at Normandy