Thursday, May 1, 2014

Back From Normandy

I just got back from the French region of Normandy, which is known for two military campaigns that changed the course of history.  The first of these occurred in 1066, when Duke William of Normandy sailed northward to England, defeated the English led by King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and then took the English throne, thus becoming known as William the Conqueror.  The other took place during World War II and is known as D-Day.  Many of the places I visited have a connection to the Allied operation that started on June 6th, 1944.

Normandy is named for the Norsemen who settled there a century or so before William was born.  However, one could be forgiven for thinking that the name means something like "it rains all the time".  There was rain at least part of every day I was there.  I don't think I've ever had a wetter vacation, certainly not in Europe.

I stayed in a city named Honfleur.  Although the syllable "fleur" looks exactly like the French word for "flower", it is actually derived from the Norse word "fjord".  This particular meaning of "fleur", however, is only true for place names in Normandy.  If you're somewhere else in France, and you see "fleur" in a name, it most likely means "flower".
Honfleur is located on the south side of the mouth of the Seine.  Just east of the city is the Pont de Normandie (Bridge of Normandy), which at the time of its opening in 1995 was the largest cable-stayed bridge in the world.  The estuary of the Seine is highly effected by tides, including tidal waves (true tidal waves, not to be confused with tsunamis, which are caused by earthquakes) that can make crossing the river dangerous.

French highways are more compact than their American counterparts.  Most of the time the median is little more than a narrow steel or concrete barrier.  Route numbers and distance markers (which are in kilometers) are normally mounted onto the median instead of the sides of the road.  The shoulders didn't look wide enough to accommodate a car, even though theirs are generally smaller than ours, making me wonder what you would have to do if pulled over by a policeman.  I saw very few traffic lights, but traffic circles were ubiquitous.  The main highways are mostly toll roads.

The major rest stops on French highways each include a gas station and a small store in addition to the restrooms, thus resembling a small version of an American truck stop.  Some also include a restaurant.  Each has its own name, beginning with the word "aire".  These are better explained here.

Some of the rest stop stores have vending machines for drinks, which first dispense a plastic cup (rather than a paper cup as in the US) and then the selected liquid into the cup.  To my surprise, one machine also dropped a plastic stirring rod into the cup before the liquid.  The downside is that these stirring rods also constituted a large portion the litter I saw at the rest stops.

I'm sorry to report that a certain American fast food chain whose name includes an Irish prefix has become very common in France.  If the French are becoming plus gras, sadly it may be to some extent our fault.

This was my second vacation in France.  My first one was in 2008, when I rode a bike from Paris eastward to Épernay and then northward to Reims, meeting a barge that moved along a river or canal.  In this arrangement, bikers and their floating accommodations travel separately from one meeting spot to the next.  This year's vacation, however, was of the more common variety involving a hotel and a tour bus, with lots of walking and sightseeing.

This post has been an introduction.  I'll put up some posts about the specific places I visited in the near future.

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