If you have ever been to Paris, but have never seen the French countryside, I say you haven't really been to France! The villages and rural areas of France are the most charming parts of the country. In 1982, an independent association was organized to promote tourism in small rural villages that are not only picturesque but that also have rich cultural heritages. Not surprisingly, this association (logo above) is called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France).
Today, the association includes some 155 villages. Since its creation, my husband and I have been visiting these villages one by one, crossing them off our list, and often returning several times to our favorites. This past trip to France was no exception. We returned to several of our favorites, and also visited several we had never seen before. Since my last post was about prehistoric sites in the Dordogne region of France, let me share with you one of our favorite villages in the area: Beynac-et-Cazenac, or just simply Beynac.
The village of Beynac sits on the banks of the Dordogne River. It has special meaning for me, because at the top of the village sits a 12th-century fortress that served as a strategic location during The Hundred Years' War, the historical backdrop for both The Keys of the Watchmen and The Sword of the Maiden.
The Dordogne River actually delineated the border between France and England during that period. The fortress in Beynac was in French hands, while the Château de Castelnaud, on the opposite bank of the river, was held by the English. This area was the site of many struggles for influence, rivalries and battles between the two countries.
Then add to this the fact that Luc Besson filmed portions of his 1999 film Jeanne d'Arc (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) at the Château of Beynac and you will see why I like this place. I mean really: the Hundred Years' War and Jehanne?
And just for bonus points, portions of the American romantic film Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore, were also filmed here.
You can visit the Chateau for 8 euros. Be sure to go out onto the ramparts to enjoy the spectacular view from the fortress. Check out the slideshow of the chateau below:
If you visit Beynac, park along the river front (where you can also book canoeing, kayaking and river cruises on the Dordogne), and walk up the steep village streets to go to the fortress.
This is half the fun because the village is truly delightful. Scenes from the British-American romantic comedy Chocolat were also filmed in Beynac.
And now another slide show with some of the sights in the village. If you are fortunate enough to visit, wear comfy shoes because you'll be doing some climbing on steep cobblestone streets. And while you are there, don't miss seeing the neighboring villages of Domme, La Roque-Gageac and Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, all beaux villages as well. And check out the "olde towne" of the larger city of nearby Sarlat-la-Canéda. Enjoy!
For many years now, my husband and I have been visiting France's prehistoric sites, including its remarkable caves. One area in particular, la Dordogne, is a paradise of cave art dating back 30,000 to 10,000 years. In the 25 kilometers of the Vézère valley between Montignac and Les Eyzies, there are 15 caves that have been rated Unesco World Heritage sites.
We have few clues about the people who left this extraordinary cultural legacy, but the artwork was probably the work of Cro-Magnons, the first members of Homo Sapiens, who settled in Europe some 45,000 years ago and who looked like us. They are believed to have been survivors of the Ice Age that later gripped the continent.
The most famous of these caves in la Dordogne, and one you have probably heard of, is Lascaux. If you know anything about prehistoric cave art, you know that this site, with its extraordinary polychrome paintings (mostly of horses, deer and mammoths), has been rated as one of the top prehistory caves in the world, along with Southern France’s Chauvet and Spain’s Altamira, all three of which are now closed to the public. Discovered in 1940 by some French lads and a dog, Lascaux has been called the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art. During the next two decades after its discovery, thousands of tourists flocked to see Lascaux, peaking at 120 visitors per day. This inundation of human traffic triggered changes in the delicate balance of the very small cave’s atmosphere. Increased carbon dioxide, heat, humidity and other contaminants caused the growth of algae and crystals on the artwork on its walls, and because of this, the cave was closed to the public in 1963.
Two decades later, a partial replica of the cave, known as Lascaux II, opened. When our children were young, we visited Lascaux II on several occasions. Although knowing it was a replica did impact the experience, it was still very enjoyable and educational. But wait, it just got better! To showcase its rich cultural heritage, the Dordogne General Council recently undertook an impressive building project to create The International Center for Cave Art (Centre International d’Art Parietal) located in the town of Montignac. This center, which opened in 2016, is a must-see for anyone interested in prehistory, or for anyone in the area, for that matter. In addition to a replica of nearly the entire original cave of Lascaux, down to the exact contours of the cave walls, humidity and temperature (55 degrees, so plan on taking a sweater), the “The Gallery of Imagination,” which you visit after the replica cave, includes interactive activities great for both adults and kids that allow you to examine the paintings in further detail and also to take photos. And finally, there are two interesting films presented in the center’s theaters, one of them in 3-D.
You are required to do the replica cave portion of the visit with a guide, and most of the tours are in French, although you can reserve a tour in English in advance. Furthermore, you are given a tablet with earphones, which has an English translation if you are on a tour in French. Plan at least two hours for your visit. I strongly recommend making reservations in advance as this place is very popular, especially during the summer months. You can book online between 90 days and 24 hours in advance (no online booking the day of your visit) at http://reserver.lascaux.fr/en/todo This having been said, on both occasions we visited in the past year, we did not have reservations and just hoped to be able to get in. And we did! So even if you don’t have reserved tickets, stop at the center and see if you are in luck.
Now, after my encouragements to visit a replica cave, you simply can’t travel to la Dordogne without seeing some of the original parietal art up close and personally. My number one recommendation for this is Rouffignac, about 30 kilometers from Les Eyzies near Rouffignac-Saint-Dernin-de-Reillac. This large cave (8 km long) is known as the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths. Although this cave was known for several centuries, it wasn’t until 1956 that the Abbé Henri Breuil, the Catholic priest known for his protection of prehistoric sites, authenticated the images.
Rouffignac boasts approximately 260 monochrome paintings or etchings of horses, bison, ibex but particularly wooly mammoths (160) that date back 15,000 years to the Magdalenian culture. Where the other caves are cramped and tight, Rouffignac is open and expansive. Its Great Ceiling is one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful art galleries. We have few clues as to who created it and we don’t know why these artists picked such an inaccessible spot to display their genius. We are just fortunate that it can be viewed easily today. A small open-cabin electric train runs from Rouffignac's entrance to the Great Ceiling, allowing visitors to gaze up at its wonders. In high season, tickets are sold at 9 am for the whole day, so check in advance for availability. But once again, even if you don't have reserved tickets, stop by if you are in the area to see if you can get in. We just did.
The next three prehistory sites in the area I recommend are a little more problematic and do require advance tickets. They are: Font de Gaume, Les Combarelles and L’Abri de Cap Blanc. The reason I say they are problematic is because you cannot buy advance tickets on-line. You actually have to line up in the morning at the Font de Gaume ticket office, located just outside of Les Eyzies, to get tickets for all three sites.
These sites all have restricted access, with Font de Gaume allowing only 70 visitors per day, divided into groups of 11 or smaller. In high season, it is impossible to get tickets unless you go to the ticket office by 6 or 7 am in the morning. There are numbered seats on the benches outside the ticket office and tickets are sold on a first-come first-serve basis for all three sites. The office does not open until 9:30 am and the first tour is at 10 am. If you have only one day or a half-day in the area, I would skip this cave and instead go to see Rouffignac or Lascaux IV, but if you have several days, then by all means try to do these three sites. It will take most of the day for the three sites with enough time for lunch, but the computer at the ticket office will arrange the most efficient use of your time. The sites are fairly close together.
If you can only visit one of these three sites, I would choose Font de Gaume. Be aware that it does require a walk up the hill, so you need to be at the entrance to the cave, not at the ticket office, at your appointed time. Beautiful polychrome paintings, mostly of horses, date back to 12,000 BC, and you get to see them in a small group and from a very close vantage point. Many of the tours are given in English, so ask when you are buying your tickets for an English tour.
L’Abri de Cap Blanc is not a cave, but an overhanging rock shelter where an incredible frieze of horses has been sculpted into the stone by artists who took advantage of the topography of the rock. It is truly unique in prehistoric Paleolithic art. It is not large, but really is amazing, and before you go into the actual site, there is a small museum in the visitor’s center which you can enjoy while you wait to go into the enclosed site. L'Abri de Cap Blanc is also one of the few prehistoric sites in la Dordogne where the people actually lived. There is absolutely no evidence that they ever lived in any of the caves where they left their cave art, so this site is unique in that respect.
In fact, a perfectly preserved skeleton of a Paleolithic woman (Cro-Magnon) was also found at the site. The thought that she could be one of the artists responsible for this remarkable work of art makes it even more thought-provoking. Today, the original skeleton of the Woman of Cap Blanc is on display in the Field Museum of Chicago, but a replica of the skeleton is placed in the exact location in which it was found, and a copy of a bust of what she may have looked like is displayed in the center’s museum.
Even though this is a very small site, it is so unique it's worth the visit. There is some walking to get to the visitors’ center so get to the parking lot at least 10 minutes before your assigned time. Also note that this site is closed on Saturday of all days!
Les Combarelles (above), allows only 42 visitors per day in six groups of seven. It contains almost exclusively prehistoric etchings (nearly 800) mostly of horses, with a few mammoths and a beautiful lioness (below), also dating back to about 12,000 BC. It is quite a treat to go with such a small group and see the etchings up close. Our guide was terrific and spoke excellent English. Just one word of caution: the guides often point out an etching of female genitalia, so if you have children, be prepared.
The reason this cave is the last on my list of five is because there are no paintings, and the etchings are somewhat difficult to see. However, the guides do a great job of highlighting the etchings with their flashlights and they make certain that each visitor can make see the figures before moving forward. This tour, like most of the other cave visits, lasts about one hour.
Remember to take sweaters when visiting all of the caves as they can get chilly. Also, no photography is allowed inside any of the caves.
While in Les Eyzies, you can also visit the National Museum of Prehistory (Le Musée National de Préhistoire) located right on the main street of the village. If you have a lot of time in this area, then by all means, go. If not, your time is better spent visiting one of the caves. Parking can be tricky, and the museum isn’t well marked, so you may have to drive through the village a couple of times to figure out where to park and how to enter the museum (by walking up a small side-road). The good news is that the entrance fee is only €6.
Now, let me qualify my tempered enthusiasm about the museum by saying that it is full of interesting stuff, but in my opinion, there is something lacking in the presentation of the said “stuff.” After all, isn't it the French who say, "presentation is everything!" If you like a huge collection of every artifact discovered in the area in display case after display case, then this is the place for you! For me, it was a bit daunting and way too overwhelming to take in. Sometimes, a well-displayed “less” is "more."
I did, however, like the dioramas of how primitive men and women lived. There are laminated cards in English if you don’t understand the French captions, but to actually read everything would take several days! You can take guided tours, which would probably enhance the experience, for €9 to €11. Also, don't miss going outside the museum on the top floor to see the view of the valley and the controversial sculpture of "Primitive Man," sculpted by French artist Paul Dardé in 1931. It's controversial because it was supposed to represent Cro-Magnon man (who remember is supposed to look like us), but looks way more like a Neanderthal. Critics find it an aberration and clamor for its removal, because after all, Les Eyzies is the center for Cro-Magnon Man, but I like it. The fact that this photo captures my husband right next to the sculpture of a primitive Neanderthal means nothing. Really!
What I most enjoyed in the museum were the films of prehistoric man using and making tools, but most of these films can also be seen in the nearby Pôle International de la Préhistoire, which does not charge an entrance fee, and has parking across the street and great restrooms. You can also get information at the Pôle about all of the sites in the area, so unless you have lots of time, visit the Pôle and skip the museum.
This is not an exhaustive list of all there is to do in la Dordogne. It doesn't even come close to covering just the prehistory sites, let alone all of the other outstanding things to do and see in this area. In fact, this is one of the most interesting regions of France with its beautiful villages, troglodyte dwellings, river activities on the Dordogne River, and the incredible castles to visit, but that will be for another post.
Incidentally, if you are interested in cave art further afield from la Dordogne, I highly recommend visiting Pech Merle with it's amazing negative hands and undecipherable symbols. It is my very favorite cave in France with original cave art and is located in the Lot Department.
Another must see is the replica of the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche Department, which boasts a brand new complex comparable to Lascaux IV. Both of these sites are worth going out of your way for a visit.
And finally, a personal reflection. In reading tourists reviews of many prehistoric caves, I have often chuckled when the reviewer complains that the guide wasn’t very knowledgeable, often replying to visitors’ questions with an “I don’t know.” Trust me: take this reply as the sign of a good guide! I will never forget the visits we have made over the past several decades to these same sites and hearing an ad nauseam spewing of speculation disguised as fact, especially all of the sexual innuendo we once heard in Les Combarelles with our young children in tow. In recent years, sanity has returned to the profession of Prehistoric Cave Guiding in la Dordogne. The true answers, especially as to “WHY” they did it, “WHY” they chose such inaccessible spots to display their talents, or “WHY” they chose to depict certain animals, are “we don’t know,” and any guide who claims otherwise is a charlatan! Modern man can give a detailed explanation of how the cave was discovered, give comparative examples of the art from different caves, determine the years the paintings were made through carbon dating of various artifacts found in the areas, and can often determine what methods and materials were used. He can even give theories, but they should be presented as such. The truth is, we simply do not have an answer as to the whys, so don’t be bothered if you hear a guide say “I don’t know.” It’s the right answer! Happy spelunking!
I had warned my parents before taking them with my French husband, Yves, and our three children to France that summer in 1987 that it was a period when Americans were in disfavor, and that they shouldn’t be too surprised to be treated with the haughty arrogance for which the French are infamous. Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, especially in Normandy where Americans will forever be viewed through different eyes.
My father was returning for the first time to an area he had previously seen only from the windows of The Crow’s Nest, the B-24 Bomber on which he had served as a radio man in World War II. Based in Britain, he flew thirty-six bombing missions over France and Germany striking against the war machine of a Nazi tyrant and assisting in the liberation of a country with which he had no personal ties at that time. In America, he had a wife who daily wondered if he would ever return, and a nine-month-old son he had never seen. The irony was that since the time he had placed his life on the line to liberate France, his ties with the country had become significant. His youngest daughter, born ten years after the War ended, married a Frenchman, and consequently his grandchildren from that marriage were half-French, and later on a grandson, (his oldest son’s son) would marry a French girl.
On our visit to Normandy, we were accompanied by my husband’s parents, who had also been deeply impacted by World War II and the consequent Allied liberation of France. Yves’ father, Roger (left above), had served in the French military during the early years of World War II, was later taken as a prisoner of war after the German occupation of France, and then was put to work by the Germans to keep the invaluable French railroads running during the Occupation. Yves’ mother, Marguerite, was conscripted to sew uniforms for the Germans in her little village of Langon in Brittany, and her only sibling, her brother Joseph, nearly lost his life in the war. She will never forget that just as American troops were advancing towards her region a group of retreating Germans, pretending to be Americans liberators, drove through the village and shot and killed a dozen cheering youth.
We arrived in Normandy in the evening, and made two brief stops along the Eastern flank, the British Sector, before heading for our Bed and Breakfast. The first stop was near Sword Beach, along the Orne Canal where Major John Howard led his glider-borne men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in a surprise attack to secure the lifting canal bridge at Bénouville code-named “Pegasus Bridge.” They took off just before 11:00 p.m. on June 5 from England and were released an hour later for the glide in to the objective, crash landing just 50 yards from the bridge. Howard’s group fired the first shots on the ground on D-Day, but secured their target by twenty minutes after midnight. The Ox and Bucks suffered the first D-Day casualty, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, who is buried in the churchyard near the British Cemetery at Ranville. We stopped and bought postcards at a nearby café, originally belonging to the Gondrée family, which proudly advertised itself as the first French building liberated on that memorable day.
As dusk descended, we drove to the top of the bluff overlooking Gold Beach nestled between flanking cliffs below. There at that viewpoint, the British have erected a Memorial, and an earlier visitor had laid a wreath with a ribbon bearing these simple but poignant words, “To Our Fallen Comrades.” Next to that offering had been placed a packet of letters from British schoolchildren, too young to fully realize what their grandfathers had done, but nonetheless lauding the British fight for freedom on the shores of Normandy. In 1944, these same cliffs were topped with German gun emplacements that were silenced by naval bombardments from HMS Ajax on the morning of D-Day. Landings on Gold Beach took place with minimal casualties, although the weather hampered efforts to unload equipment. The beach was backed by low, marshy land where today the town of Arromanches sits, and the specialized equipment designed by the British general, Percy Hobart, affectionately dubbed “Hobart’s Funnies,” were at their most effective on Gold Beach, clearing mines and bridging ditches to speed the inland advance in the gully between the cliffs. Here, after the initial assault, the Allies established one of the two pre-fabricated Mulberry Harbors.
The concrete Gooseberries were used on all beaches as breakwaters, but at Gold, the Mulberry was a full-blown port with caissons sunk inside the ring of Gooseberries to form floating piers and roadways. This allowed the unloading of supplies from ships at all stages of the tide. Even during wartime, the Allies were concerned about permanent damage to the pristine landing beaches, and designed the installation to endure for only 100 days, but remains of the harbor survive today and were clearly visible from our vantage point forming a complete arc around the beach. On many later visits to Gold Beach at low tide, with both children and grandchildren , we were actually able to climb on the concrete caissons that are now considered as cherished historic landmarks by the people of Normandy.
The following morning was misty as we began our pilgrimage on the opposite flank, the Western-most part of the American Sector on the Cotentin Peninsula at Sainte-Mère Eglise. Here, American paratroopers and gliders had worse luck than their English counterparts. Gliders were shredded by “Rommel’s asparagus,” sharp poles placed upright in fields to discourage just such a landing, and paratroopers were dropped too early, too late, or too low from the planned drop zone during the early hours of the morning on June 6. Some paratroopers drowned in the fields around the village that Rommel had ordered flooded to defend against an airdrop, and others were live targets as they helplessly floated down into the church square. A bucket brigade of Frenchmen was dousing a blaze started by tracer fire while their German occupiers aimed their guns skyward at the billowing white targets. Private John Steele’s chute caught on the church tower, and there he stayed for several hours, playing dead while suffering from a wound to the foot. Today, an effigy of him hangs permanently on the church bell tower as a tribute to all the men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and as reminder of that historic event which resulted in the ultimate liberation of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The windows of the village church, in contrast to the medieval stained glass scenes for which French cathedrals are famous, depict modern scenes of war and liberation, but in rich colors that rival even Chartres blue. We felt a sense of hushed respect as we entered the sanctuary.
The mist lifted as we traveled on to Utah Beach. Its name was doubly significant for us, not only because it is one of the two American Sector beaches, but also because we were from Utah. Here the very first Allied soldiers touched shore at 6:30 in the morning of June 6th. Protected by the Cotentin Peninsula, the sea was calm, although the strong tide swept the landing crafts south of their intended point. However, it turned out that this part of the beach was much more lightly defended than the planned landing place, and the Americans were swiftly ashore. In contrast to Omaha, the bluffs overlooking Utah Beach are not high, and soon the amphibious tanks had breached the defenses and began pushing inland to meet the paratroopers who had gathered sufficiently to secure the surrounding roads. When we later visited a nearby shop for postcards and film, the owner kindly offered me a Utah Beach lapel pin as a gift when he learned that we were from Utah and that my father had been one of the American liberators.
Between Utah Beach and the Pointe-du-Hoc lies the German Cemetery at La Cambe. It is a required stop for anyone visiting Normandy because its somber black crosses and 21,160 graves, some with unidentified remains simply marked "Ein Deutscher Soldat,"
which remind the visitor that most of these Germans did not adhere to Hitler’s Nazi fanaticism, and that they also left behind loved ones in their homeland. Many were mere boys. Yet here they lie on soil where they are not honored as the great liberators but viewed as the hated enemy. Nearly thirty years later, after having discussed this tragic fact with my daughter and her family on the way to La Cambe, our eight-year-old granddaughter suddenly asked us to pull over. Thinking she was ill, we were surprised when she started picking wild flowers along the side of the road and then told us that she wanted to place them on the tomb of a German soldier to show that someone cared. Only a child could have displayed such pure compassion and lack of guile. It was a moving experience and a somber reminder of the futility and tragedy of war.
Our emotions came to a head at the Pointe-du-Hoc. This is property that has been deeded to the American government, and except for keeping the weeds mowed, it has been left exactly as it was after extensive Allied naval and air bombardment. Though rusting barbed wire, widespread shell craters, twisted rebar and broken concrete blocks belie the fact, we felt strongly that this was hallowed ground.
Resistance information prior to the invasion had identified a six-gun German battery atop these cliffs that would have threatened the landings at both Utah and Omaha beaches. The landing there, which required scaling the steep cliffs, was assigned to the elite American 2nd Ranger Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder. Attempts to use ladders and ropes failed, and the cliffs had to be climbed in the face of enemy fire and hand grenades rolled down on the attackers. The tragic ironies are that the six-gun battery had not yet been installed, and some of the Ranger casualties came from friendly fire. Today, at the top of these steep cliffs, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall is still impressive.
In one of the bunkers, still solid and undamaged in spite of the bombardment, a memorial plaque to the Rangers is affixed to a wall built by the enemy. The plaque lists the Rangers who lost their lives in the assault, a full sixty percent of Rudder’s men. That morning, a popsicle stick was wedged behind the plaque with these words neatly written upon it: “To those who didn’t make it from one who did.” Our tears flowed freely.
The gray skies only reinforced the somber mood as we traveled on to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery that today overlooks it. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast to the Utah Beach landings short of outright failure than the experience of the troops landing at Omaha Beach. The seas were heavy that morning, and unknown to the Allies, the German 352nd Infantry Division was on exercise, thus doubling the number of defenders. Furthermore, the coastline was a formidable obstacle with 100 foot high bluffs through which only five small gullies offered a way inland. The first error at Omaha was to drop the landing craft too far offshore (nearly 12 miles), and many of the craft were swamped by the rough seas. Of the 32 tanks unloaded 6,000 yards from shore, 27 sank. Many soldiers were killed by enemy fire before they ever reached dry land. Those who did reach the beach were trapped below the bluffs, unable to create a breach. Successive waves of invaders suffered similar losses and those who made it were likewise pinned on the beach. Small groups and individuals, including a company of Rangers, and officers such as Brigadier General Norman Cota and Colonel George Taylor, organized the survivors and slowly advanced to take German positions. As evening approached, the Americans had secured a bridgehead on the bluffs. Today, tourists are warned from leaving established pathways among the same bluffs because land mines and grenades might still be present.
As we strolled among the rows of astonishingly perfectly aligned white crosses, a sense of overwhelming reverence overcame us all. The behavior of visiting schoolchildren who ran along the sidewalks and a group of giggling teens who passed around a cigarette seemed entirely inappropriate, and we moved to a quieter spot. While reading the names and states of the fallen soldiers inscribed on the backs of the markers, we reflected upon those parents, wives and children whose loved ones didn’t come home. I, for one would not be there walking upon the consecrated ground with my father if he occupied one of those 9,000 graves, nor would my husband be married to me, nor would we have those three children, whose heritage straddled both sides of the Atlantic, and who were beginning to catch a glimpse of what this pilgrimage really meant.
As we stood before the Memorial’s mosaic depiction of the air and land attacks on what has been called the Longest Day, my father pointed out where his bomber squadron was on June 6, 1944. He flew two missions that day bombing bridges, roads and railways to help isolate the Normandy peninsula and prevent German troops from easy access into the area. As his voice wavered, an elderly couple approached us and in broken English asked, “American, yes?” My husband replied in French that indeed we were Americans and that the man whom they were addressing was his father-in-law who had belonged to the American Army Air Corps playing his part in Hitler’s defeat. They took his hand with a degree of reverence and homage, shook it with deep sincerity and said, “Tank you, tank you.”
I have walked the beaches of Normandy on many occasions since that time. I have taken many friends, as well as my children and grandchildren, but I have never once visited without feeling the sacred nature of those sites. As I ponder what took place on the Beaches of Normandy that day so long ago, I realize that not only was D-Day a turning point in the war, but that it also represented a turning point for unborn generations who would follow, who might not have followed had Operation Overlord been the disaster that Eisenhower feared, or worse yet, who might have been born into different circumstances in lands where freedom was an elusive dream.
I still have and cherish the lapel pin from Utah Beach. It is a reminder of the sacrifices that men are willing to make for freedom. It is a reminder that there are times when we must take a stand against tyrants, but most of all it is a reminder of the legacy left by my father who passed away fifty-five years after that fateful day in June 1944.
In May 2016, my husband and I visited Le Puy du Fou (click left to go to the English website), the theme park in the Vendée region of France, which in recent years has been voted as the best theme park in the world. The park has no rides, only a variety of historical re-enactments, all based on various periods of French history, and specifically focused on the Vendée region. The shows are terrific, but if you go and don't speak French, be sure to ask for headphones to listen in English so that you can fully benefit from the "spectacles."
The grounds of the park are magnificent, left in their naturally wooded state and enhanced by beautiful landscaping. It makes you feel like you are walking through a medieval forest, and not in an asphalt jungle. Furthermore, De Villiers simply bought property for the theme park that included its own castle, medieval village, and 18th century village. No need to reproduce anything when you already have the real thing!
Of course, we particularly enjoyed the Joan of Arc show (Le Secret de la Lance), which literally translated is "The Secret of the Lance." Hmmm, good name for a novel! We also loved the bird show (Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes), the breathtaking Roman Coliseum show (Le Signe de Triomphe), where eight lions are loosed on the Vendéen opponents of Rome, and Le Dernier Panache, a visually spectacular recounting of one of the tragic episodes in Vendéen history when 300,000 opponents of the French revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror were slaughtered.
We missed the world-famous Cinéscénie, which only plays in high season. It is considered to be the largest live night-time show in the world and features 1200 volunteer actors on a stage spread out over 23 hectares, 24,000 costumes, 3D video projections, multiple backdrops, and fireworks. It lasts 1 hour 40 minutes. We'll have to go back one year in the summer to see this extravaganza. This show is not included in the regular park entrance fee, and must be booked separately. It books up far in advance, so you must plan and reserve tickets if you are interested.
We stayed in one of the park hotels, Les Iles Clovis, delightful little thatched-roof cottages sitting over water. Remember Clovis? He was the first Christian king of France and was baptized in Reims with oil from the Sainte Ampoule. His baptism and coronation in Reims was the motivator for Joan of Arc to get the Dauphin Charles to Reims for his own coronation. It was fitting to stay there, and the cottages were delightful. If you go off-season, you can stay in one of the park hotels for nearly half the price of high-season. The other park hotels are: The Gallo Roman Villa, Le Camp du Drap d'Or (The Field of the Cloth of Gold, which is spectacular just to see) and Le Logis de Lescure. The hotels, which have free parking, are all within walking-distance to the back entrance to the park. We found the best hotel dining to be the buffet at Les Iles Clovis, called Le Banquet de Mérovée .
Check out the slide show of my photos from our visit:
While going through the process of writing The Sword of the Maiden, the second novel in The Watchmen Saga, I was preoccupied by all things “Joan of Arc.” Actually, my preoccupation with Joan started long before I wrote my first novel in the series, The Keys of the Watchmen. In fact, the entire unwritten premise of the first novel was to set up Katelyn Michaels as the one mortal who could fully understand and logically assist Joan in her mission. No, my preoccupation with Joan is not just a passing fancy. I have been interested in her remarkable story for years, even decades.
My challenge in writing this novel was that so much has been said about Joan and so much has already been written about her. She is probably the most iconic figure ever to have come out of France. Consequently, I knew that trying to tell her story from a fictional platform was risky business. How could I bring anything of value to her story? How could I add one iota of understanding to what actually motivated her? How could I do her improbable narrative justice? I finally came to the conclusion that all I could do was try to give my readers a personal experience with her, and to do that, I wanted to be as accurate as possible about the places she visited and the conditions in which she lived.
Because my Breton husband and I are blessed to own a small cottage in Brittany, I have the opportunity of spending a lot of time in France. Consequently, we visited the important sites in Joan of Arc’s story on many occasions and in every season of the year. I paced off distances and even whipped out my handy-dandy tape measure to assess the width of battlements and ramparts. I took hundreds of photos from every possible vantage point. Incidentally, click on "Joan of Arc Sites" to see those photos and for my recommendations of the actual places to visit.
I especially wanted to know what conditions would have been like for Joan to travel on horseback from Lorraine in Eastern France to the Loire Valley during the winter months, so I traipsed across fields from Domrémy to Chinon, saturated from the near-constant drizzle that hangs over France during January and February. Even in the seemingly firm fields covered with green vegetation, my feet sank several inches into mud and muck. Unlike Joan, I had a warm car in which to take refuge, a hotel room in which to shower, eat and sleep, several changes of clothing and shoes, and I didn’t have English marauders out to kill me! I could barely fathom how miserable conditions must have been during that monumental voyage she undertook with her little band of merry men, but I got a small taste of it. I did all of this so that I could more accurately describe where Joan grew up, the places she visited, and the conditions present during the initial part of her mission to save France. I wanted to be as precise as possible so that you, my readers, could perhaps feel a bit of what she felt.
I returned in February from my latest trip to France where my husband and I revisited some of the sites I write about in The Sword of the Maiden. However, on this occasion, with all of the hectic moments of getting the book finished and published behind me, I was able to just contemplate. I hardly took any photographs. I certainly didn’t take any measurements. No longer concerned about how I was going to describe the Jehannic sites in words, I finally took the time to ponder more deeply about the remarkable maiden who walked in these places.
While standing on the very spot in Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, I felt overwhelmed by emotion for the young woman I had tried to come to know personally. I was overcome by the reality of how she must have suffered, and of how she must have felt abandoned and betrayed by her compatriots, her voices, and even by God. I hoped that at that moment when the flames engulfed her, she knew that her sacrifices served a noble purpose and that her martyrdom mattered. I reflected on the difference she made in her very short life, not only for the Dauphin Charles and her beloved France, but for generations to come. This 19-year-old child-woman impacted the entire Western world. As I expressed in the novel, I firmly believe that her actions were critical for France to finally regain its sovereignty, and that a strong and independent France was key in assisting and motivating American Revolutionaries to obtain America’s independence from England. Obviously, many, many other factors were critical in these developments, but what would have happened if Joan had failed in her mission? How might the course of history have been entirely different? I felt honored to have had the opportunity, in some small way, to share the story of Jehanne la Pucelle with others.
The feelings I had at that moment reinforced the conviction I have that each of us can make a difference in some way, even if it’s just in the life of a single individual. To that person, it could mean everything. I’ve learned from Joan’s story that to make a difference, we have to be driven by deep conviction and complete unselfishness. We cannot be focused on our own self-centered desires. Very few of us will ever impact the world like Joan of Arc did, but every one of us can make our homes, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states or countries better places by focusing on others. I hope that learning about Joan’s courage and conviction will motivate my readers to find ways to make a difference. This is how we can honor her legacy.
My husband and I just got back from France, where I did some final research for BOOK II in The Watchmen Saga. More about that to come in the next few weeks. And of course, we made our tri-annual pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel, as all faithful Miquelots must do. But this visit was particularly amazing. On a chilly and overcast afternoon with none of the ubiquitous tourists in sight, we hired a guide to take us on a walking tour of the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. Because of the hazardous quicksand in the bay, which in French is accurately labeled as les sables mouvants (literally translated as "the moving sands"), and because of the constantly flowing and ebbing tide (which can reach a difference of 50 feet in height between low and high tide), it is highly dangerous to venture out into the bay without a professional guide. That day, in the entire 113,000-acre bay, there were just the five of us, two couples and our guide. Our own private "Bay Walk!" Since we couldn't get Nicolas le Breton as our guide, we had to be content with Guillaume le Normand, in green below! My husband is in navy blue. And check out the fabulous image above of the mount reflected into the water, which can only be obtained from the bay. This is looking to the south, and you can see the wooded north side of the island below the abbey, which has no structures on it.
Guillaume would not allow us to go in front of him. He would walk a little ways, test out the area, and then have us follow in his steps. He also taught us just exactly what "moving sands" really are. If you stand in place for any length of time, or stomp around in a circle, you suddenly feel the sand instantly "liquefy." The water seeps up from below and what you thought was a solid surface quickly turns into
a moving surface, and the seawater begins to seep up from underneath. It's like walking on a water bed with water leaking out. These three photos were taken in the same place, and show how quickly the seemingly firm, dry surface can turn into a pool of water, and then into a sink hole! Guillaume also showed us how the seagulls have learned to dig for cockles by using these very properties of the sand. They stand in place and start stomping, and when the little pools of water seep up, so do the buried cockles, which the seagulls then open with their beaks. They have literally learned how to use the quicksand to their advantage. Fascinating. I learned an important lesson by watching them. Regardless of the hazards (trials or challenges) in our lives, we need to look for the positive in them, so that those hazards can actually turn into learning opportunities and even blessings.
We also learned that even during low tide, you will get wet when you go on a bay walk. Four separate rivers constantly flow into the bay, (Couesnon, Selune, See and Guintre) and even when the tide is out, the rivers are flowing. We crossed all four of them to get to Tombelaine, with the water coming all the way up to our thighs at some points. Even through the rivers, Guillaume went first and we
followed after he had tested out the waters (and sands). Below is a shot of Tombelaine Island, which in itself has a colorful history. The only way to get to Tombelaine is by walking to it either from the mainland or from the Mont. It is about 3.5 kilometers (2.2) miles from Mont Saint Michel. The name of the island comes from the legend that it is the tomb of Princess Helene, daughter of King
Hoel of Brittany, who died of a broken heart when she was not allowed to marry the man she loved from a rival family (the Breton version of Romeo and Juliette)! During the early Middle Ages, religious hermits lived on Tombelaine, then in 1137, Bernard du Bec founded a priory on the island, and for a time it became a place of pilgrimage like its more famous sister island. At the height of the power of Mont Saint Michel's Benedictine Abbey, the abbot used the island to exile disruptive or disobedient monks. During The Hundred Years' War, the English took possession of the island and built a fortress from which to launch attacks against the Mont. Later, in the 16th-century French wars of religion, the leader of the Huguenot Army, Gabriel Comte de Montgomery, occupied the island. In 1666, the island's fortifications were destroyed so they could never be used by the English again. Today, there are just a few ruins left and the island is a government-owned bird sanctuary. We climbed to the top of Tombelaine (with bare feet), and honestly, it is more of a mosquito sanctuary than a bird sanctuary! I must have had 40 bites on my exposed legs by the time we left. Just a few vestiges of the old fortress remain on the small granite island (see below), which measures 250 m x 150 m and is 45 m high.
But Tombelaine has a great unobstructed view of Mont Saint Michel. The first photo below is taken from the island's shore, and the second is taken from its summit. It took us three and a half hours to complete the round trip walk, and we were cold and muddy when we finished, but it was well worth it. What a fabulous day.
Just got back from a marvelous month-long trip to France, where I had practically no internet at all. So I'm catching up. This trip was three-fold: 1) to attend my French niece's wedding; 2) to gather all of my children (who had come for the wedding) at our cottage in Brittany; 3) to do further research and photography for Books II and III in the Watchmen Saga. The trip was a success on all counts! And did I visit Mont Saint Michel? Yep, twice, and with "Katelyn" as well! Just check her out below on the beach of the island, right next to Saint Aubert's Chapel, which my readers will know is really dedicated to Michel, the son of our beloved Jean le Vieux. Tombelaine Island is in the background, where the disobedient monks were sent during the middle ages, and which was occupied by the English soldiers during the 100 Years' War. This narrow beach and the rocks around the chapel are completely covered during high tide, so you can only visit at low tide, and you better know just exactly when the tide is coming in so you don't get trapped!
And here is Katelyn visiting the chapel to pay her respects to Michel and Jean le Vieux:
More photos and news of my France trip to come!
Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who downloaded a free Kindle version of THE KEYS OF THE WATCHMEN and helped me reach #2 on the Amazon Top 100 free Kindle downloads on March 5, 2015. Hope you all enjoy the book!
Five Stars on Amazon
You will be drawn in immediately By Lakin at wonderousreviews on February 9, 2015 Format: Kindle Edition
I am so glad I accepted this book for review! I don't normally read NA novels, but this one sounded really, really good, and when the author contacted me I couldn't resist that summary and the good things that I had read about it! I mean Mont Saint Michel, history, archangels, a sacred mission, a medallion, and an alluring man named Nicolas? I just had to find out for myself, and you should too, because I'm really glad I did!
I was afraid that I wouldn't like the main character, Katelyn, because the summary said that she was determined to hate every moment of her visit to Mont Saint Michel. I mean, I've read a book or two where the characters complained about everything and that gets annoying. I was relieved to find out that this would most definitely not be the case! Katelyn was smart, savvy, and very sarcastic! Her feelings toward her step mother were understandable, and she did enjoy her enjoy her adventures on the mount with her brother, who she was a really good sister to. I admired her love and loyalty toward her family (and later on, the people of the mount). I found her sarcasm funny, and it made for a really entertaining narrative. I really related well to that and her feeling of inadequacy.
Put in the dangerous situations she was placed in, she proved her determination, ability, and worth. With the help of God, she just might be able to save Mont Saint Michel after all. Though she might not be as much of a history guru as her younger brother, something about Katelyn will make her perfect for the mission she had been given.
Then there was her super smart brother, Jackson, who was into history and gave us all lessons about the Mount that were really interesting and quite essential to Katelyn's success. I appreciated how the author pulled it all together, making all of the details significant, and using history to do so!
And of course Jean and Nicolas! Jean was very kind and grandfatherly. He played such an important role in this story from tutor and mentor, to understanding friend. Nicolas?! He was pretty awesome too! From the moment Katelyn and Nicolas laid eyes on each other, Katelyn knew she could trust him with her life (and it's a good thing too). Then, when she travels back in time and meets him again, they don't exactly get off on the right feet. At all! Which made for some humorous situations that had me laughing so hard! And then there was a fantastic twist that actually made me laugh at its brilliancy! For a while I was beginning to wonder if they would ever come to the realization of how perfect they were for each other. And if they do, will it be to late?
My words can not explain enough without spoiling anything about the plot, so you need to know that it is brilliant, and everything fits together so perfectly. The characters were relateable and strong, the descriptions breath taking, the history interesting, the plot perfect, the action heart pounding, and the plan impeccable! Pleas read this book, trust me, you won't regret it!
It also kind of ends on a cliff hanger, so I can't wait for the next book in the Watchmen Saga to come out!
I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange of an honest review. This in no way affected my opinions, and all thoughts and opinions are solely my own.
By Susan Squire -
The Keys of the Watchmen (Watchmen Saga Book 1) (Kindle Edition) I did enjoy reading this book. As the other reviewers have said it gets to a point where you can't put it down. I'm looking forward to the next one.
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, February 5, 2015 By Sue - See all my reviews This review is from: The Keys of the Watchmen (Volume 1) (Paperback) Great read. Very engaging and nothing offensive. You'll also learn some fascinating history. Help other customers find the most helpful reviews Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Report abuse | Permalink Comment Comment
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful way to engage in the history of France, February 3, 2015 By Joan Rond - See all my reviews This review is from: The Keys of the Watchmen (Volume 1) (Paperback) A wonderful way to engage in the history of France! I finished reading this book a few weeks ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I want to visit Mont Saint Michel and see the places I have visited so vividly in this book. This is a book that makes you laugh out loud one minute and hold your breath the next.