Wednesday, November 2, 2016

France, Part 4: Brittany and Normandy

France is a country I fell in love with during my first visit two decades ago. Since then, my adoration for it has only grown. This past September, my friend Lauren and I decided to take a trip there, but to a region we both had not explored. We had both been to Paris and the south of France, so we picked the North, an area with an incredibly rich past, which included the second World War. This was a subject we were both interested in and the D-Day beaches of Normandy were a definite place we wanted to visit. We plotted out trip going from the tip of Normandy, in Etrétrat, with its glorious and majestic cliffs, then worked our way east and south to Brittany, touching on quaint and beautiful villages along the way. To say this was a life-changing trip would be an under statement. At several places, I was able to record impressions of the landscape and medieval resonance of this magical area through drawings. Seeing the same scene as Monet did was a marvel in itself and I started to understand the premise of Impressionism, and tried to embrace it in some of my drawings. I saw what he and other artists did when they looked at the myriad colors in the water, sky, land.
Here are my "impressions" by the region we visited.

The white-chalk cliffs of Etrétat are in the Seine-Maritime district of Normandy along what's called the Côte d’Albâtre, (the Alabaster Coast)

Le Falaise d'Amont, one of 2 cliffs that embraces the English Channel in this part of Etrétat,
making the waters serene and lovely to swim in.

Impression of the cliff

Le falaise d'Amont and the tiny church on the hilltop, Chapelle Notre Dame de la Garde.
See link to article concerning the fate of this historic mariner's church. 

The chapel, back view, with le falaise d'Aval to the left

This is Charles, the nosy seagull of Etrétat, who wanted to either
eat my crayons or draw with them

Le Falaise d'Aval and the famous "Needle" from a distance, protruding out
from the water like a giant white fin

Sunset on le falaise d'Aval



Next: Honfleur


Honfleur is a beautiful, cobblestone village southwest of Etretat, in the lower Normandy region called "Calvados". It sits in the estuary where the Seine meets the English Channel. The term "fleur" does not refer to "flower" in this case, but to a river flowing into the sea, coming from the Old Norse word, "flóð".

This was our second stop on the trip. Albeit a bit touristy, especially around the popular Vieux Basin (old port) section, I still fell in love with its winding medieval streets and tudor-style buildings. My favorite part was seeing the artist ateliers on the ground floors, showcasing each artist's work in the window. Highlights of Honfleur were the Sainte-Catherine church, the biggest made of wood in France with its old bell tower; the musée Eugene Boudin, housing Impressionist art; and mon préféré...the Erik Satie museum, a real surrealist treat, feeling more like chez Magritte with a giant flying pear and various Magritte-esque umbrellas on display when you first enter. I love playing Satie's piano pieces and various ones were featured on the self-playing baby grand at the end of the tour.

Du dessins d'Honfleur.

Le Vieux Basin, the charming "main drag" of Honfleur

I sat at a lovely cafe drinking my coffee and drawing. Life can be very simple.

I really love these old Anglo-Norse houses. The upper parts of France are heavily influenced by
both these cultures, and especially by the Celts, in Brittany. Oh yes, and dogs everywhere :)

Cloche Ste. Catherine

An overview from the bell tower

Next: Bayeux


The town of Bayeux is most famous for housing the Bayeux Tapestry, La Tapisserie de Bayeux, an exquisite work of textile art from the 11th century, measuring 230 feet long (!) by 20 inches high. It is not a tapestry at all, as it is not woven, but wholly embroidered with varied and versed stitches, depicting with immense detail and great care, the conquest of England by the Norse king, William the Conqueror. The distinct personalities (the facial features are incredible and quite humorous) are brought to life in the natural dyed wool yarn of the period in russet, blue-greens, gold, and black. Though this epic cloth work in cloth was assuredly not meant to be humorous, there are satirical elements that add to its brilliance.

I only made one drawing while staying in "the tiniest house in Bayeux", inspired by the tapestry.

We unexpectedly came across a bicycle tour while in Bayeux, and I have a couple drawings from that. The French love their tours.

The smallest house in France was actually the water surveyor's station, where
he could watch the tide come in and out, signaling a potential flood.

Next: D-day Beaches

Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery

Probably one of the saddest and most powerful experiences was visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy. The solemness of this once-battlefield was punctuated by the cloudy, grey day and ceaseless wind. The wind would blow sand up into the air, making it look like the wispy and restless ghosts of the long-dead soldiers that had fought on the very beach I was now walking on. The concrete memorial held many small gifts of flowers and crosses at its base. There were still remnants of German bunkers on the beach and the fields above it. We entered into the Canadian bunker, where they secretly and successfully deactivated the sea mines the Germans had implemented to prevent Allied forces from reaching the shores.

I felt the past still very much present on Omaha Beach, the only beach we were able to visit. Even after almost 80 years, the air was heavy with the memory and remnants of war.

We also visited the amazing American Cemetery that left me without any words. The sheer number of graves makes one fall silent and walk slowly through the white markers, cross-shaped, as if in a waking dream. A heart-breaking experience. Yet I must say, every American should go to this incredible memorial of the American effort in World War II. It made me quite proud and privileged to have seen it. I sat on the quarry at the edge of the cemetery, where large pines hung almost protectively over the graves. The wind had died down creating an atmosphere of quiet and peace. I felt the most at peace sitting on the stones making these two small drawings of the American Cemetery. To me, they are the most poignant and simple I've probably ever made.

Next: Dinan


Crossing over to Brittany, we stayed a couple of nights in the beautifully-preserved town of Dinan. Dinan is a walled medieval city dating to the 13th century. The walls provide great views of the city and surrounding landscape from above and were fun to walk along. The highlight was hearing the church bells of two different cathedrals ringing in unison at sunset from one of the ramparts.

The Rue Jerzual is the main or most popular street, extremely steep and narrow, lined with quaint shops and cobble-stoned. It leads down to the old port where we took a little boat ride on the Rance. A lovely area of northwestern France which I highly recommend seeing. Here are some drawings I made while there.

Rue Jerzual and the river beyond as seen from the ramparts.
Blue shutters of various shades and windows potted with pink and
red flowers are a real French statement, and do their job of brightly
dotting the prevalent grey and brown villages in northern France.

Boat ride down the Rance, with the fortressed walls
of Dinan in the background
The Rance

The wondrous gearsof the clock tower in Dinan. Great to draw!

A musician playing a guitar/accordian-like instrument that he wound
with his right hand

Next: Mont-Saint-Michel

Le Mont-Saint-Michel

From Dinan, the island of Mont-Saint-Michel is a short drive northeast, back into Normandy. This Benedictine abbey is situated at the watery crossroads of Brittany and Normandy, where the main artery—the river Couesnon—flows into the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel. This causes incredible low and high tides around this 10th century architectural marvel. For a time, however, the Abbey was no longer an island, suffering from an accumulation of silt. The main causes of this ecological breakdown was land reclamation for farming, a dam construction, a causeway from the 1890's, and a parking lot built at the bottom of the abbey to accommodate tourists. This slowly led to the degradation of the natural land- and sea-scape. Restoration that began in 2005 was completed last year. The causeway and parking lot were torn down and the Couesnon has been able to flow freely into the bay once more.

The Abbey is equally beautiful from a distance as it is up close. There is a secret, narrow passageway (only 24" wide that we walked through!) and various stone nooks, a beautiful little cemetery, and of course the abbey itself at the very top. We were lucky enough to arrive during morning Mass where nuns and monks could be heard chanting in their white, hooded robes, while slowly draping the alter and columns were the familiar, smoky scents of frankincense and myrrh.

My drawings at Mont-Saint-Michel were the ones I struggled with the most, but then ended up liking the most, especially the drawings of the Mass. I love drawing cathedrals and religious ceremonies– in part, stemming from my Catholic past–but also from my love for the peaceful and sacred qualities invoked within these environments. To me, they are reminder of something higher and bigger than ourselves that we are innately connected to. 

Next: Camaret-sur-Mer


Leaving Mont-Saint-Michel, we headed to the famous walled city of Saint-Malo, one of Brittany's north-coastal cities heavily bombarded my German artillery during WWII. I was reading All the Light We Cannot See while in France, which partly takes place in Saint-Malo. I truly hated that book, even though it was probably the most beautiful book I've read.

Anyway, you can read more about Saint-Malo here. I found the exterior of the city beautiful, with people digging for oysters at low tide on the vastly wide beaches. But the actual city was quite disappointing; to me it was one big, glossy mall-tourist trap in a medieval setting.

So we continued deeper into Brittany and explored the eastern-most coast, called "Le Finistere", meaning the end of the world, which is part of the Crozon Peninsula. And it quite literally feels like that. Like you're standing at the edge of the world, the land giving way to the foggy Atlantic and the UK beyond.

Here, we hiked the craggy cliffs of the small seaside town called Camaret-sur-Mer and had lunch at its little port afterwards, where I tried the delicious "biere Breton", beer made from buckwheat and honey.

The scenery along the hike was breathtaking. Gorgeous meadows of wildflowers with white jutting rocks and windy paths leading to the edge of the cliffs. Looking down, you could see the ancient limestone formations lapped by the turquoise and dark blue ocean. I did my last drawings of the trip here, among sprinkly rain and blustery wind.

Back to: France