Rain or shine in Normandy
FRIDAY, 1PM: There is a saying in France that in Normandy it rains three days in every two. On our 90-minute bus ride from where our ship the Avalon Creativity is docked, in Rouen, to the almost coastal town of Honfleur, we discover that while, logically, this would appear impossible, here in the north of France the laws of time and meteorology may differ.
We also discover one benefit of all this rain is a never-ending supply of rainbows curving across grey, sodden skies. Not such a price to pay. This sweeping, largely flat countryside, dotted with castle ruins and forests of birch and beech trees, is one of the most productive in Europe and the heartland of the country's dairy industry. Fields are full of white cows whose milk is transformed into camembert, butter and a local speciality, salted butter caramel sweets. Our tour takes a briefly political detour when our guide, Anne-Marie, unexpectedly vents about the lawmakers of Brussels.
"The EU wants France to stop farming so much to give other countries a chance. This is stupid," she sniffs. "God gave us this land so that we could produce such great food. Why would you want to stop that?"
2.30pm: Just outside Honfleur is the rather awesome Normandy Bridge, which spans the Seine to link the town to the port city of Le Havre. The longest cable-stay bridge in the world when it opened in 1995, it is the epitome of engineering elegance.
2.40pm: Weighed down by umbrellas, scarves, coats and hats, of course the rain stops about a minute after we get off the bus and we lift our bowed heads to see one of the most utterly picturesque places imaginable. A major port in the Middle Ages and a centre for the trading of salt, at its heart is the 17th century Vieux Bassin, a drawcard for artists over the years, including the Impressionists of the late 19th century. Like a right-angled "U", this little harbour basin, full of sail boats, is surrounded by tall, brightly-coloured buildings dated back to the 15th and 16th century, up to six storeys tall and no more than a few metres wide. Bedecked with flower boxes, they are now home to a collection of galleries, cafes, souvenir shops and restaurants and shoebox-sized apartments above.
3.30pm: Above the harbour, steep cobbled streets lead up to Church of Sainte-Catherine, a 15th-century timber church that still functions as a place of worship. If religion isn't your thing, it's not difficult to at least praise the efforts of its builders, a collection of ship carpenters. The curved and strutted roof looks nothing so much as like the hull of a ship. Winding my way back down the streets, my bag begins to swell with purchases of butter caramels, the local salt Fleur de Sel, postcards, biscuits, a red ceramic bowl and a bottle of honey-infused cider vinegar, another local specialty. The only relief in getting back on the bus is not having to lug all of this around with me. And it's raining again.
6.30pm: Warming cups of fruit tea welcome us back on board the Avalon Creativity. There is time to abandon our raincoats, umbrellas and scarves in our cabins then it's down to the lounge for a guest lecture about World War II and the D Day landings. A large number of our fellow passengers will spend the next day touring the beaches and cemeteries of this infamous coastline. For some it's a pilgrimage to honour fathers, uncles and grandfathers who died here.
Saturday, 8am: It's an early morning departure for our Taste of Normandy tour, heading first to Bayeaux. While Normandy has been described as the "sacrificial lamb" of the liberation of France, this medieval city was somehow left untouched by the battles of 1944. While that's notable in itself, this beautiful town is most famous for its namesake tapestry, a 70-metre long embroidery that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings. I'd expected something staid and static and instead find an engrossing, thrilling and almost cartoon-like tale that is by turns violent, funny and a tad naughty. (The audio guides are certainly of use as the tale of William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror, and the traitorous Harold is somewhat complicated.) At times it also feels a bit like out of the Blackadder series. Depicted on the 50-centimetre-high tapestry are 626 humans, 55 dogs, 202 horses, 41 ships, 49 trees, nearly 2000 Latin words, more than 500 mythical and non mythical creatures and one Halley's comet.
1pm: There is no shortage of half-timber buildings in this part of France but possibly there is no more gorgeous collection than those found in Beuvron-en-Auge, officially one of the most beautiful villages in France. Flowers are everywhere, from the irises planted on the apexes of thatched-roofed homes - a superstition - to the flower beds and boxes around the town's main square. At Aux Trois Damoiselles, a small hotel and restaurant, we eat a simple but wonderful lunch of quiche lorraine, a selection of camembert and brie and a traditional cooked milk pudding that might look like your worst nightmare but tastes like a dream come true. As this town is surrounded by apple orchards, it is only right that we accompany this lunch with a superbly dry local cider.
3pm: I don't make a habit of drinking spirits for afternoon tea but when in Rome . . . We're at the Chateau du Breuil distillery in the heart of Normandy's Calvados region, a beautiful old chateau, still home to the owner's family, with mountains of apples out front and more than 20,000 apple trees in the surrounding orchards. I leave no wiser to the charms of this spirit but that doesn't mean to say I'm not prepared to work on it. A bottle joins the rest of Normandy's best bursting out of my bag - some of the magic of this place to take home.
Angela Walker travelled courtesy of Avalon Waterways.
Sunday Star Times