Monday, August 29, 2011

Normandy 3

 ...where was I...oh yes, locking up the kids. Well of course they weren't really locked up, these see-through boxes are part of a very cool attraction at Alligator Bay, a reptile park with tunnels for the kids which wind  through several of the snake exhibits. Look out points allow the kids to pop up in the midst of an enclosure full of pythons, or anacondas, etc, which was quite exciting and just scarey enough to have them screaming and squealing in only partly-faked terror. When do we we become to old to scream just for the fun of it anyway? I'm sure the power of a good yell is vastly under-rated and to be honest there are often moments in my day - usually when a deadline is rapidly approaching - when a blood curdling scream would actualy be the most appropriate response.
Apart from snakes Alligator Bay had hundreds of retiles, from lizards to turtles to (obviously) alligators. And while they are all quietly impressive, I hadn't realized how much they poop! And stink! I mean these giant tortoises are all very nice and all but the kids were like "oh my God look how big that poo is!" It really made me wonder why people would want to keep reptiles as pets. Quite apart from the bite-your-leg-off factor of course.

Well enough reptiles, we were about to leave the hamlet of Ver behind and head northwest to our second holiday house...a 15th century chapel which was recently lovingly converted into the most amazing house, in the hamlet of Cerney, which is in the middle of nowhere, about an hour's drive from Rouen. More about that shortly!

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Surprising Level of Self-Awarenesss

Carl and I were in the car the other day with our very good friends who are in their sixties. There was a short lull in the conversation and Carl leaned forward and asked "You don't have your own kids, do you?"
"No, we never did" was the answer.
"Well why not?" asked Carl.
"We wanted to but we went to the doctor when we were younger and he told us we couldn't"
There was a long pause while Carl thought about this, and we could almost hear the cogs turning in his head. Finally he leaned forward again and said in a low voice:
"I bet you're glad now".

Definitely a classic Carl moment!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Normandy 2

There are a lot of 'must sees' in Normandy and pretty much near the top of everybody's list is surely Mont Saint Michel. A rocky tidal island about 1 km off the coast (more like mud flats really), the monastry was first built in the 8th century and it's been a strategic spot for even longer. It's an impressive and beautiful site, with every rock having been built upon. From a distance it rises elegantly from the polders and tidal flats surrounding it, seeming to float magically in the bay.

On closer inspection however the illusion was somewhat shattered by the sheer numbers of tourists clambering over the Mount. The first hint was the queue for the carpark, which started about 5 km from the actual site. Have paid our 6 euros to park, we joined the swelling column of foot traffic making its way across the causeway to the Mount itself. Unfortunately the Weather Gods weren't impressed by the effort we'd all gone to just to get this far and as squalls of wind blasted us, driving rain horizontally into our faces and whipping hoods and jackets into a flapping frenzy that sounded as if we accompanied by a flock of hysterical seagulls all taking off at once, I had time to reflect on the joys of mass tourism. Yes, we knew Normandy would be busy in July, and yes we were trying to be tolerant, but my God! The people! Finally we arrived at the impressive entrance port, just in time for the rain to stop, and the wind was silenced by the high stone walls all around.

We then joined the throng of people shuffling forwards, in some places shoulder to shoulder, as we headed up the stone-paved paths (there are no roads of course). I admit I was a little disappointed to see that the paths were lined, chocka-blok, with souvenir shops. Signs in Japanese, German, Enlgish and 20 other languages tried to entice tourists in to buy postcards, place mats, calendars and t-towels all printed with pictures of the Mount. Other popular items seemed to be nougat, little wooden boats, and replicas of every possible type of ancient weapon. Predictably the boys were entranced by the swords, muskets, battle axes and morning stars and reluctantly agreed to keep shuffling rather than get side tracked.
So it was nice to see Mount St Michel but if you're planning a trip I suggest you go in spring or late autumn to enjoy the experience more. To the credit of the French, none fo the shops had neon signs and none were visible above the walls/ramparts from a distance. It was only once you entered that the tourist trade took over. Apparently it's also very beautiful at night but once we'd clambered down to the bottom we were pretty intent on just getting away from the crowds.
However nearby (literally about 4 km) was a place the kids were really keen to see; Alligator Bay. I know, coming all the way to France and then visiting a reptile park is kind of odd, but it looked very cool and we weren't disappointed. Plus it was an opportunity to lock up the kids....
...but more about that next time!

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Normandy 1

Our trip to Normandy, France, started as it was to pretty much continue; with a visit to an historic site. The first day we drove as far as Les Andelys, on the river Seine. Ít's about mid-way between Paris and where the river finally meets the sea, on a strategic bend which allows sweeping views over miles of the surrounding countryside. This is where Richard Lionheart built his magnificant castle, Chateau Gaillard. Niels has wanted to visit this for years.

Today there's not much more half remaining as it was intentionally demolished once the French had wrested it from the control of Richard's son and heir after a two year seige. Still, what's left is still very cool to visit and the boys enjoyed prowling around the dungeon:
 ...and part of the wall has been restored so you can see how it would have originally looked, with a striped pattern made by two different types of stone. We stayed the night in a very cool family-owned hotel in the town, with Dad working as chef in the kitchen, Mum taking care of running things and the daughter serving meals in the dining room. I highly recommend the Hotel Paris to anyone passing through the area, and if you stay, make sure to eat dinner there too! One fo the best things we discovered in France is tht when you go out for a meal as a family, there is not a separate kids meal comprised of fries and some other deep fried junk food. Instead, for the very modest price of 7 - 9 euros they just order off the regular menu and are served small portions. So Niels enjoyed two types of terrine followed by duck, while Carl scoffed down langoustines followed by delicious monk fish fillets in a delicate sauce. Heavenly! We drank their wine for them of course!

The next day we braved the traffic around Caen and (eventually) found the tiny settlement of Ver, near to Gavray, in southwestern Normandy. This was home for the next week as we settled into a converted barn and planned our day trips to nearby sites.
One of the first was to Utah Beach, one of the famous beaches from the D-Day landings. Standing on the damp sand, the wind whistling around us and watching Carl and Holger trying to get a kite in the air, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like in the early morning of 6 June 1944 when thousands and thousands of allied troops struggled to come ashore and find shelter from the hail of gunfire and shells pouring down on the from the German positions. Today it's a peace stretch of beach but then it must have seemed like hell on earth.
 There is an impressive memorial museum dedicated to the men who died here - largely American - and dotted along the shore are reminders of once took place.

While in the area we also visited the Azeville Battery, a huge network of underground tunnels topped with canon emplacements which was once home to 170 Germans. It's hard to imagine living underground like a mole in those conditions but with a clear view out to sea in the directly of the UK, it was a hugely strategic place.
It was a sobering day and a reminder that we should never take the freedoms we enjoy every day for granted. Tomorrow we decided, we'd do something a bit more cheerful, and hope for sunshine! More about that next time.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Goodbye Rocco, you will be missed

Last night our dear bunny Rocco died, having spent ten and a half fluffy, floppy eared and mostly fun-filled days on earth. The last few days he seemed to be a little tired, content to sit in the shade or stretch out in his favourite spot in the hutch and watch the summer showers fall. I'd booked him for a check-up with his vet today, but she didn't get the chance to say goodbye to her "turbo bunny".  After munching away on a piece of apple at dinner time, I went to close up the hutch at around 8pm and found him stretched out in the same place I'd left him, never to snore again.
Never again will we have a chuckle at Rocco having fallen asleep on duty, 'guarding' the hutch and his precious Punky Muffin; 

And she is learning to adapt to life without her dirty old man, still up for it despite being the equivalent of about 110 in human years, I guess. In recent months his efforts didn't amount to much more than a front leg - or sometimes even just an ear - draped over her but in his mind he was still the undisputed stud of the garden;

After all, they have been together for a couple of years and while she wasn't his first love, she was his last.

He was often to be seen trailing after the kids, having figured our early on that small children often leave a trail of tasty treats, and he even managed to steal a peanut butter sandwich from Carl once;

However his main achievement was stealing our hearts, and there are many people who will miss him.

Goodbye old friend. You were much loved.