Most baby boomers didn’t do the “junior year abroad” thing the way many of our kids get to today, but BoomerCafé co-founder and publisher David Henderson has made up for it. He has traveled the world, and his heart keeps going back to Paris. But now he’s wondering, is there a better place in France? Here’s his second Normandy Journal, from Bayeax.
One of the nice benefits of being baby boomers is that we have observed time passing. Hey, look at the bright side! We know stuff. Let me share a recent experience.
Paris has changed dramatically since my last visit ten years ago and strikingly in the last thirty or so years. For me, Paris has lost much of its magic and glamour as it has become more Americanized, complete with noisy tours, trash and trinkets at popular tourism spots, and fast food.
It’s harder to find a really outstanding café or brasserie, although Le Pré aux Clercs in Saint Germain is still truly special. But, it’s an exception. The overall quality of what was once French food has diminished, replaced by the ordinary to just-okay fast and mass produced food.
But it is the insane noise and the crowds of tourists … many from the U.S. … that make Paris less attractive. Notre Dame … Louvre … Musee d’Orsay … Tour Eiffel … Montmartre. They’re elbow-to-elbow with tourists.
And sometimes, awfully noisy ones. It’s a curious phenomenon that many Americans abroad cannot seem to be able to converse except with a loud voice in an otherwise quiet setting, like a church, museum or gallery. Here’s a tip – Europe is quieter than America.
Ah, but Normandy is different, and the town of Bayeux special. Even though many tourists visit Bayeux, there’s more tranquility. It is quieter and that’s what I seek for a restful holiday.
Bayeux is just eight miles from the D-Day invasion beaches but was spared during the battles, partly because General Eisenhower recognized the importance of this medieval village, with its 11th Century cathedral, ancient houses, canal, and the priceless Bayeux Tapestry which depicts events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.
This may seem a bit odd but it is a tree in Bayeux — just a plane tree, which some would call a sycamore — that pulls me back to the town. I have visited it many times. It is a massive “arbre de la Liberté” or “freedom tree,” planted by the locals after the French revolution more than 200 years ago next to the cathedral.
Before a fence was erected around the tree to protect its roots, I would see local residents walk by, kiss their own hands and then gently pat their kissed hands against the tree. I suppose we share the same feeling under those massive limbs. It’s like the tree actually has a heartbeat and those mighty limbs spread for an embrace.
But even in Bayeux, while far from impossible, finding good restaurants has become more of a challenge. La Fringale on the main street, rue Saint-Jean, is superb but in my opinion the restaurant literally across the street, La Table du Terroir, is among the worst in France.
The hotel Le Lion D’or, a former coach inn dating to the 18th Century, has a fabulous restaurant and outstanding rooms that emphasize a quiet environment (except when occupied by groups of American bicyclists). Many photos adorn the walls of the study, photos of the famous people who have been guests, from Tom Hanks and John Wayne to nobility and heads of state.
Just to walk through the narrow streets of this village brings back the magic of a former time in France, a magic lost these days in Paris. There is a Monet scene at every curve of the canal, whether an old abandoned boat, the water wheel of a mill, or some ancient building that has sagged for centuries over the water.
I sit on a bench in the town park — large and square and lined with plane trees — with the excuse to read a book … but the real reason is to drink in the primal energy of this place.
The train ride takes just two hours from Paris but the environment takes me back to the France of my memories.