The sweet corner of France that looks like the England of my youth
A little further north, towards Montormel, the countryside remains soothing – birdsong, hedgerows, fields, the little stream of the Dives – but the story is not there. This is the Falaise pocket where, 75 days after D-Day, 100,000 retreating German soldiers were surrounded. Allied forces – British, American, Canadian, Polish, French – forced them into submission. Some 50,000 escaped as the neck of the pocket tightened, 40,000 were captured and 10,000 killed. That the Dives Valley is now as serene and sleepy as a Sunday afternoon is perhaps a natural way to compensate.
On Hill 262, where the Polish forces fought fiercely, often hand-to-hand, to close the pocket, the Montormel Memorial explains everything (memorial-montormel.org). It covers the end of a campaign begun weeks before on the beaches of Normandy which killed some 20,000 Norman civilians. The entire experience of occupation and civilian suffering is staged at the Civil War Museum in the town of Falaise itself (memorial-falaise.fr). Out of a million stories, the one that stuck in my mind was about Edmone Robert. She was a Norman teacher, communist and member of the first resistance. Arrested in her class in 1942, she was sent to the camps, survived until the end of the war and then died on the train on the way back.
It’s micro-history. There is macro-history in the medieval castle which dominates the town. Around 1028, it was here that William the Bastard was born who, 38 years later, evolved from “Bastard” to “Conqueror”. The castle is monumentally intact – bristling like a brigade of old warriors – but, if you want to honor one of Charles III’s most distant ancestors, better be quick. The tour is fascinating but involves more and steeper stairs than some seniors appreciate (chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr).
Camembert and calvados
Later I drove to the most famous hamlet in the world. In 1791, a priest fleeing the revolution arrives and shows local dairywoman Marie Harel a new way to ripen cheese. She named the result after her hamlet: Camembert. The place is no bigger now (pop: 176) than it was then and has long since lost a monopoly on Camembert making. They can, and do, produce it in Hungary and Brazil. But the real stuff is always made locally and the really the real one, made from raw milk, has an AOP, like good wines.
La Maison du Camembert and the accompanying museum are as welcoming and informative as you would expect cheese shops to be. You will learn that camembert really rose to the top rank of cheeses in France when it was included in the rations of soldiers during the Great War (maisonducamembert.com).
I continued on my way, further into what is called the Pays-d’Auge. If the postman was Pat French, he’d be driving around here too. It has the necessary bucolic serenity, with apple trees everywhere. This is apple country. The harvest is in full swing as we speak. In a valley bottom near Crouttes, the half-timbered farm of La Galotière took care of my needs in apple alcohol. Calvados, mainly, because I have serious doubts about cider: a child’s drink dressed as an adult.
Decide on this subject during the apple festivals in Vimoutiers, a stone’s throw from La Croutte (15-16 October) or the nearby Sap-en-Auge (12-13 November).