If you're planning to go to France, consider visiting Bayeux (pronounced by-uerr) in Normandy. I recently read an article in the Tribune Chronicle which stimulated my recollection of that small city's appeal. My wife and I visited Bayeux and its surrounding attractions in June of 1999. We concur that it is an important and enjoyable place for a visit.
The first place in this delightful town that comes to mind is the museum that holds the 11th century Bayeux apestry, some 230 feet long by 19 inches wide, which recounts the events that preceded the Normans' conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The tapestry winds around the gallery of a building that was specifically designed to display it. The work of art is not really a tapestry but a historic banner made of wool embroidery on linen fabric. It is thought that it was used to decorate the sanctuary of the cathedral at Bayeux. The figures in muted colors depict scene after scene of the whole story of the battle that became the starting point of the Norman influence on English life, language and culture.
Nearly a thousand years later, the British army landed in France along with their allies, the Americans and the Canadians, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the Second World War. The five beaches where they landed are about 10 miles away from Bayeux. That was another reason important to me for visiting this area. We arranged a tour to Omaha and Utah beaches where the American troops came ashore. The first thing that caught my attention there was the distance at low tide between the water's edge and the dry high land where the Nazis had been entrenched. The crossing of this open space made the advancing American troops perfect targets for the Nazi defending forces. The reason for the landing of the forces at low tide was that the landing craft could reverse themselves to leave as the tide came in. Otherwise, they would have been high and dry on the sandy beach.
On the high ground, there were substantial concrete bunkers for the defending forces' protection and use of larger guns. We were able to go into some of them. Looking at the beach below, where there were large iron barriers, barbed wire and mines, made me think it would be impossible for the landing forces to reach these "pill boxes." They did reach them, and they advanced about half the distance between the beaches and the town of Bayeux the first day of the battle. We walked along the top of Point du Hoc, a sheer cliff of granite that reached about 100 feet high. The American forces scaled it and destroyed the big cannons that were placed there. Visions of the dead bodies that had filled the beaches stirred our feelings. Another moving scene was the nearby American Cemetery with its row on row of white crosses and Star of David markers.
We stayed at the charming Hotel Reine Mathilde (Queen Matilda) in the heart of Bayeux, across from the City Hall. Wanting some cheese and a beverage at the end of the day in our room, we needed some ice to chill our drinks. I went down to the bar and asked for some. The barkeep spoke no English and my French was nil. I called upon the manager for help. She translated my need to the barkeep and returned with a small tumbler with three ice cubes in it. I thanked her for the ice, chuckling to myself, "In America we would have gotten a bucket full of ice!"
Later, we walked around the town and were surprised to find musicians everywhere. There was organ music coming from the cathedral, and just outside it was a little jazz ensemble playing. In the recessed entrance to a store, there were two children playing recorders. On the steps of City Hall were four men playing long baroque trumpets. We learned that this was the annual summer music festival when any amateur musicians may play anywhere in town. Clusters of listeners stood around each performance, some with glasses of Calvados, some with beer, all enjoying the evening air and the music.
We had known of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Normandy Beach landings but we also found a festive, colorful, welcoming town. We hope you will find it too, someday.