After two nights docked in walking distance of the Rouen historic district, the Baroness now sailed as close to the Atlantic coast of Normandy as we would get on the Seine. Our ship sailed at night to Caudebec en Caux, a river port on the edge to the Seine estuary. The town itself boasts a beautiful flamboyant Gothic cathedral but we had no time to visit it. It also held other secrets which we wold discover much later. The Ramblers were ready to go shortly after breakfast. Those who took the tour would be gone all day and the Baroness’ crew would stow away the gang plank and head back towards Paris as soon as our busses returned.
Needless to say, the river is wide here, and we saw more commercial traffic on the Seine than is usual further inland. You realize that this river still has a strong commercial purpose in Normandy. Caudebec must get quite a bit of river traffic because they have a large permanent dock which makes it very easy for even elderly passengers to disembark.
From Caudebec we would travel to not one, but three different places. For our enjoyment, Uniworld had combined an optional tour with our scheduled tours which made for a long but interesting day. I know some passengers complain about long bus rides to get to a scheduled destination on river cruises. The Ramblers don’t mind the bus rides as they provide a glimpse of the countryside not visible from the river, the nearest thing to being able to drive the narrow country roads oneself. This day, we drove through many tiny villages with ancient churches, saw crumbling chateaux and fortifications in the distance and learned something abou daily life in rural Normandy.
However prolonged busing that results from either too high or too low water in the river is another story and is not always so pleasant.
Our time on the bus would be relatively short today as nothing seems to be too far away in Normandy. Our first stop was the Cliffs of Etretat
. One always hears about the white cliffs of Dover, but there are similar cliffs on the coast of France. The ones in Etretat are particularly spectacular and attract many tourists, while locals come to the pebbly beach to swim in the chilly waters. We learned that the cliffs and the beach had been attracting artists since the times of Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet. They boast three spectacular arches ; our guide told us that a reckless German pilot had flown his Messerschmidt through the largest one when the Germans occupied the area during WWII.
The cliffs of Etretat also have another connection with airplanes. It is where the white bird, (L’Oiseau Blanc) was last seen. This was the plane piloted by Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, French WWI air aces. They attempted a non-stop flight from Paris to New York City two weeks before Charles Lindbergh took off from the other side. Unfortunately, the white bird disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic; their disappearance is considered one of the great unexplained mysteries of aviation. However, some researchers feel that Nungesser and Coli actually reached the coast of North America but haven’t proved it conclusively. This is but one of many theories regarding their disappearance.
A monument to commemorate their flight was built on top of the cliffs in the 1930’s but destroyed by the orders of Hermann Goering during the German occupation of Normandy during WWII. Fortunately it was replaced by a new, taller monument in 1963 and a small museum which commemorates their lives was added. Why was this particular monument destroyed? Legend says that Nungesser tangled with Goering in the air during WWI, and challenged him to a duel. I can find no hard evidence of the but it would not be surprising if the swashbuckling Nungesser had issued such a challenge. Yet Goering did order the monument destroyed… Since all parties are long dead, it will likely remain a mystery but it is still a great story.
Unfortunately we did not have time to visit either the monument, museum, or the small church of Notre Dame that guards the cliffs just visible through the arch of the monument. In more recent times, a golf course was built on the grassy expanse at the top of the cliffs. It is always difficult to put together a tour that interests people from several countries and with varied travel experiences, but Uniworld does a good job hitting a balance.
We did walk along the main street of Etretat. a small town which seems to survive on tourism. The houses are a mixture of well-kept and shabby medieval buildings. Frankly the Inn we strolled past didn’t look too appealing and gave the impression it might fall down in a stiff breeze. They were holding a market while we were there, mostly with inexpensive and pretty awful looking clothing. Our friends kept suggesting the senior Rambler should buy some to replace his still missing clothing with many chuckles. Mixed in with the clothing stalls and beach apparel were a few local producers selling Normandy ham and the cheese for which it is famous. These did look appetizing.
Our next stop was the Manoir d ‘Apreval, one of Normandy’s family owned organic farms producing cider, pommeau de Normandie and Calvados (apple brandy. . This was our first visit to the Normandy countryside and fortunately it was a beautiful, sunny day,. Apreval was a homey and welcoming place where the Letellier family has farmed and produced cider for three generations.
We first enjoyed a tour of the cider-making facility and the Calvados distillery. I have been to many wineries and distilleries in the US, so this part of the visit wasn’t particularly interesting to me. The process is very similar no matter the fruit or grain used. What did interest me was the kind of apples Apreval grew for their cider and brandy. They mentioned that they raised 17 varieties of apples, bitter, bitter-sweet, tart and sweet. I had never heard of bitter apples and wished I could have tasted one. Sadly they didn’t offer an apple tasting. Before writing this blog entry, I googled Apreval and found a list of the apple varieties,many of which can now be grown in the US for cider which has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years.
The cider produced at Apreval contains a small amount of alcohol, three to four percent, depending on the variety, definitely not apple juice. A tasting of all their products including Pommeau a mixture of 1/3 Calvados and 2/3 cider would be part of our lunch. In France, Pommeau is often served as an aperitif before a meal. This is a beverage I had never tasted and I am not sure that I would try it again. While the cider and Pommeau were pleasant tasting, I prefer water or wine with meals, the Calvados is another story. After dinner we tasted the 4 year old Calvados which is often drunk as a disgestif. The Apreval Calvados was excellent and even available at a few stores in the US but at quite a high price. It started at $68. They did have a store where we could have purchased Calvados and other products but glass bottles are always difficult to bring on a plane alas.
After the distillery tour, we enjoyed a farmer style lunch in their dining room . Emmanuelle told us that this would be a meal similar to what the staff of the manoir ate at home. It was a nice change from the many wonderful choices available on the Baroness. We enjoyed farm fresh green salad, cucumber salad and tomato salad along with roasted potatoes and a duck terrine along with a tasting of Norman cheeses. We started with a taste of the Pommeau as an aperitif and drank their excellent cider with the meal. Four year old Calvados Reserve provided a satisfying finish to a simple and delicious lunch. During the lunch we had a chance to taste their local cheeses as well, along with good home made bread.
Normandy’s famous spectacle-wearing cows are famous for proving milk for three cheeses, Camembert, Pont ‘Eveque and Livarot; relatively mild, medium and strong. The senior Rambler is not fond of any French cheese having had a bad experience when we were in France years ago. I enjoyed it all, particularly the strong and stinky Livarot.
After a pleasant, leisurely time at the farm, we headed for our busses. Although we had seen much already, there was still one more stop, the picturesque port of Honfleur. For the moment though, it felt good to relax on our bus for the relatively brief ride and so we did. Next stop Honfleur