Stunned. That was my first emotion as I looked out this morning to check the weather as I headed to Normandy. Snow! Falling everywhere, on cars, on the sidewalks, on my window sill. But, I had my reservations and I determined to stick with my plans. So here I am. In Caen. To get here, I went over to the taxi stand at Saint Paul but there were no taxis to be found, so I lugged my luggage (just a carry-on and this laptop) out of the snow and into the Metro for a ride to Gare Saint Lazare from where the train to Caen was to depart. There was awful weather across Europe this morning—apparently London was snowed over—and most every train in Paris was running 40-60 minutes late. But the train to Caen was on time, the only one in the whole station on schedule. It was not a particularly pretty view training west because the snowy atmosphere clouded everything. But I had a comfortable seat in first class, and coffee and baguettes were provided. Not nice enough to be a scenic ride; just milky enough to make me wonder what on earth I was headed into. But about 30 minutes from arrival (it was about a two hour train ride), the snow disappeared and the weather righted itself. Yeah!
Caen. It has two faces. It is just a few steps away from the beaches where the Allies came ashore on D-Day and, while not a particular target, it endured heavy bombing and all of the collateral damage attendant to that monstrous aerial and subsequent ground onslaught. So either things here are new within the last 50 years, or they are hundreds of years old. The blend of architectures actually works reasonably well, because everything built of late looks to have been part of a tasteful master plan.
As much in Paris references Napoleon, just about everything here echoes William the Conqueror. He lived here. He is buried here. His residence also is pretty amazing; an extraordinary castle fortress where he apparently figured out how to get his act together for his moment of truth in 1066. The castle now houses a really nice museum, stocked by a good assortment of paintings from the Renaissance onward, including a nice Peter Brueghel the Younger oil of a Flemish village, painted around 1600. Also within these walls is a museum covering the history of Normandy from Paleolithic time to today, quite a lot to swallow if one arrives late in the day and without a thinking cap.
This is an engaging little place and tonight I went to a cozy inn accented with a fireplace, good duck and apples, and lots of the local brew—Calvados. This is where that oh-so-wonderful aperitif comes from and it just cannot be savored in better environs than those I had tonight. After dinner I ordered a snifter of the five-star deeply rich brandy and retired to the bar for a conversation. “How old is this place?” “Built in 1638 according to the inscription in that block right behind you.” “So it is more than 350 years old. How did it survive the bombs?” “Luck. Just good luck.” Good luck indeed. The bartender pointed out that the street outside in this little neighborhood restaurant was 400-hundred-plus years old—“look at those stones woven together; no other streets in Caen look like this.” “Well I love this little place,” I said. “I will put another log on the fire for you”, he responded. Another Calvados. Another good day. Tomorrow the beaches. I have reserved an English-speaking guide.