Part 1: American Cemetery
The D-Day beaches and museums are not the only thing to see in the Normandy region; with its sandy beaches, dramatic coastline scenery and architecture, and charming old-world villages, all within a few hundred miles of Paris, the cosmopolitans there call Normandy "the 21st arrondissement," and the area is often filled with visitors from both northern France and southern England. Many come to see the ancient towns of Rouen and Honfleur, others to see the absolutely spectacular seaside cathedral of Mont-Saint-Michel. We, of course, had come to see the American cemetery, so we knew that little outside the immediate vicinity would be feasible on a one-day trip (perhaps next time, we'll see some of those other worthwhile stops).
However, one stop that we could afford to make was to see the town of Bayeux itself, which as the closest city to the beaches was the first sizable one to be liberated, within the first few days of the invasion. A local convent chaplain made sure London officials knew that the town was not a German headquarters and had little military value, thus sparing it from an almost certain obliteration by the D-Day bombing runs. The result was the salvation of two nearly irreplaceable treasures: the elegant cathedral and a historic (both in topic and in scope) piece of tapestry.
Having returned from the cemetery, we now had a bit of time to spare to see both, as well as the surprise opportunity afforded us to walk "behind the scenes" at Bayeux's new D-Day museum. We were just strolling through the town after a tasty and much-delayed bite to eat, when we noticed a fleet of buses parked outside some sort of museum-y building. Investigating further, we learned that there had been a short ceremony and musical presentation to inaugurate the new museum while we were out at the cemetery, and that the staff were now sitting idle while the visiting dignitaries were shown around the town. The museum—fittingly enough given the slow pace of French bureaucracy—was not actually ready in time for June 6 (whoops!), so the special guests were instead shown where all of the completed exhibits will be going one day (any day now), and they were perfectly content to let us wander the halls as well. Awfully nice of them, although there wasn't much to take pictures of. ("And on your left, here's a platform where we'll put a tank.")
Perhaps the only site in the region that we didn't need a map to find, the massive cathedral dominates the landscape of Bayeux.
From high in one tower, the city watchman would survey the horizon, always on the lookout for English troops during the Hundred Years War (or for the Wehrmacht five centuries later). On June 7, 1944, Bayeux was liberated with only a single casualty—the German lookout, shot through the window while watching for invaders of his own.
Construction tends to take an insanely long period of time (see David Macaulay's excellent series of illustrated children's books), so long in this case that architectural styles shifted over the years. The result is a foundational structure that is Romanesque in nature, but which is capped with Gothic decorative touches on the façade and near the top.
In Paris, the population tends to scatter among scores of churches and cathedrals of various sizes; in other cities and towns, there tends to be only one, thus insuring that it will be built to enormous proportions.
It's almost impossible to imagine raising your voice with the cavernous echoes of the quietest conversations rebounding around you.
Like so many here, it's still a very active parish church, so in addition to the usual bevy of lit votive candles, you'll often cross paths with parishioners attending services or seeking a bit of quiet reflection.
The elaborate perched-atop-the-globe sculpture dominates the side pulpit, making it even more impressive than the main one.
Like most French cathedrals, there are prominent monuments to their fallen congregants of the two world wars, "morts pour la France."
The WWI memorial—a much longer roll of names, given that France fought for more than six weeks in that one—adds a suggestion to "pray for them."
Also like most large cathedrals, the surrounding chapels and cubbyholes are packed with art.
As usual, photos hardly do justice to the elaborate stained-glass windows.
I'm doing the best I can with a cheaper, millennium-era digital camera. Hope you enjoy 'em.
While Mark explores the crypts in the vaults below the nave, Elizabeth scouts for postcards in the gift shop.
Hopefully, I'll remember to mail them before we leave France.
One of the other houses in town is either a bed and breakfast or yet another museum devoted to the Allied forces; either way, it's a nifty little cottage that we certainly wouldn't mind living in.
Wishful thinking...oh well, on to the tapestry.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive example of woven storytelling, a wool-and-linen epic mural some 70 meters long (originally designed to hang along the walls of the cathedral). Housed in a special low-light room to protect it from damaging sunlight and flash photography (you best check yo camera before they wreck yo camera), the tapestry is wrapped around a large island display in the center of the room, around which the visitors slowly walk while listening to the twenty-minute audioguide's explanation of what is transpiring in each panel (available in many, many languages, as the tapestry is apparently world-famous). If historians like Elizapropes regret not being able to briung back pictures of the tapestry to show her Western Civ. classes, not to worry, since (naturally) they sell foldout reproductions in the gift shop. Even our 1/7 scale version is still a massive folded picture, but it allows for handy scanning. I'll include some of the pictures here.
Some. It's quite long.
The tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror's rise from Duke of Normandy to king of England, culminating in his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (the last time that an amphibious assault across the English Channel would be successful until D-Day, nine centuries later). Like most Shakespeare plays, there's plenty for bored peasants to find amusing as well, most often comical bits cleverly hidden in the borders of the tapestry (the tapestry has at times been called a 70-yard-long cartoon).
In the early panels, the childless, dying King Edward the Confessor dispatches brother-in-law Harold across the Channel to inform William of Normandy that he has been chosen to succeed Edward. I can't imagine why anyone would think Harold might not like this idea, or why it might possibly lead to a bit o' violence.
Winds force Harold's fleet aground on land belonging to Count Guy of Ponthieu, who—his trusty falcon perched on his wrist—immediately takes Harold and company prisoner. While they parley over ransom demands, William hears the news and sends his demand that Harold be released.
While William secures Harold's release, note the couple up to sumpin in the lower left of the border. You'll occasionally spot people sans clothes in odd locations.
In exchange for his daughter's hand in marriage, William wins Harold's support against the nearby Duke of Brittany. Near the offshore Mont-Saint-Michel—the iconic seaside island cathedral/fortress of the Normandy region, seen near the top right—their horses sink into the quicksand-like marshes that even today have severely limited traffic to the cathedral.
After defeats at Rennes and Dinan, the Duke of Brittany surrenders, handing over his keys on the tip of his lance.
Returning to Bayeux, Harold is knighted by William, and swears his allegiance on two reliquaries.
Harold then returns to England to report to Edward, who is in his death throes. Note the faces poking out of the windows.
Edward utters his last requests as he is being prepared for burial. Soon after he is in the ground, however, Harold grabs hold of the orb and sceptre, seizing the throne of England.
As a comet in the upper left provides an ill omen for Harold's subjects (seen fretting at the right end of the previous panel), Norman spies relay the usurper's actions to William.
William orders an invasion fleet to be built, and his lumberjacks get to work.
The ships are loaded with wine and weapons (just what you need when waving around weapons—wine!)...
...and the fleet sets sail for England.
When the fleet arrives, the cavalry disembark first, and race for Hastings.
William feasts at a banquet, attended by a host of barons and his brother, the Bishop of Bayeux.
A watchman informs William of Harold's approach, and events begin to accelerate; a house that stands in the way of Williams' army is burned down. (What...you can't walk around a house?)
As Harold's forces approach, William exhorts his men to fight heroically.
As the armies collide, the decorative animals from the border give way to ever-larger piles of dead soldiers in their whimsically conical Monty Python helmets.
Heads roll (literally...see the bottom border) as the skirmish intensifies; Harold's own brothers are among the dead.
Even horses join the ranks of the honored dead as the battle rages on.
As the bishop in his close-fitting cap exhorts the troops at left, William removes his helmet at right to prove that he has not been wounded.
With the aid of the archers in the border, William's fired-up army cuts the Saxons to pieces.
Harold dies after being shot in the eye, and William's troops begin the delightful task of stripping the dead soldiers.
His victory secured, William of Normandy becomes William the Conqueror, and stakes France's first claim to the English throne. It would set the stage for centuries of on-again, off-again conflict between the two countries.
Of course, all of this is how the French view history. We'll see what the Brits think when we visit London.
The Other Paris