Day Nine, July 29: The River Vire and The Beach - Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Tour of Normandy - CycleBlaze

Day Nine, July 29: The River Vire and The Beach

It did not rain that night. The next morning the weather report no longer indicated rain at all.

As I started out, I was pleasantly surprised by another feature Tessy-sur-Vire: it was the start of another greenway, which followed the Vire river north to the sea. This greenway was based on a towpath, originally used for draft animals to pull barges up the river. Often towpaths can be boring, because they are typically along canals, and go arrow-straight. This one followed the natural path of the river, and so it curved and meandered, but always slightly downhill. The wind was also at my back. With cycling , the amount of effort is the same, but the resulting speed is often different. On the Vire towpath, the speed was fast, and R.E.M.’s “I am, I am, I am Superman, and I can do anything” started playing in my mind. Most of the morning the landscape flew past at exhilarating speeds. I was going so fast and having so much fun I took zero pictures for the entire morning.

Normandy is best known in the English-speaking world for invasions: first and outbound invasion by the Normans in 1066 into England, and then an inbound invasion by Americans, Britons, and other allied forces during D-Day in 1944. Before I left, I was curious about what it meant to be Norman to the people who actually live in Normandy. Surely they didn’t just identify as the people who lived in the “invasion place”, did they?

When I had asked Jean-Philippe and Agnès and their children what it meant to be Norman, they spoke more of agriculture. For Jean-Philippe, it meant small farms that grew a mixture of crops, with apples and pears being the most “Normande”, and had cattle of the Normande breed, which was a traditional cow of the region that was more rare than it had been in the past. Both pointed to the Percheron, a large white draft horse breed from the region; Agnès later left a book about the Percheron by my bedside. They spoke of the agricultural changes that came with the arrival of Americans in the 1950s. In particular, French farmers were in awe of the power of the American tractor, which led to the plowing under of a lot of the small farms for large fields of grain crops that could have been anywhere. Their son said he felt French first and Norman second. Agnès did say, in a note of hope, that there were significant numbers of young professionals who grew up in the region, got a good education, and were coming back to the smaller towns and villages after getting disillusions with “city work”, and some of them were starting businesses meant to bring back Norman culture, but with a knowledge of modern business practices.

Cycling over the la Barquette lock, which controlled the level of the floodplain adjacent to the Operation Overlord beachheads.
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Heading north from Mont Saint-Michel, it became increasingly apparent that, at least in monuments, the effects of the Second World War still loomed large. In the small city of Saint-Lô, an enormous placard was carved into the rock overlooking a major intersection as a monument to those who died in the American bombardment of the city that almost totally destroyed it in 1944. I frequently came across “Voie de la Liberte 1944” bollards, demarcating the path of Allied forces. Most frequent were museum-style educational placards. It seemed like every bridge in northern Normandy had a sign documenting how it was crossed, assaulted, blown up or nearly blown up in 1944. A small canal lock, inaccessible by car, had a full-color sign describing how it was the site of a fierce battle on D-day to control the flooding of the nearby lowlands.

I was now following a signposted route that was the combined route of Eurovelo 4 and “Tour de Manche,” the latter taking its name from the French term for the English Channel. Not long after Saint-Lô, in the town of Saint-Fromond, it parted ways with the Vire River, my scenic, always-slightly-downhill companion that morning. On the map, the Vire’s solid blue line came apart into a hundred blue rivulets in a large wetland. On the ground, the signs stopped and it was hard to tell how to continue. At first, I just found a path that continued by the Vire, but it was grassy and kept getting wilder and wilder and harder to ride through. Eventually I turned back. l asked a passing man and boy, apparently a grandfather and grandson, if they knew how the bike route continued to Carentan, the next large town on my route. The grandfather confidently led me and his grandson back the way I had come, along the river, unfazed by the trail conditions. Eventually we came upon a man fishing in the river, and the grandfather asked him whether this would go all the way to Carentan, and the fisherman said it would. It was now a canal, he said, but the canal went all the way to Carentan. How easy it would be to bicycle, he didn’t know. The grandfather, content that he had shown me the way, bid me farewell and headed off in a different direction.

The wetlands near Mont Saint Michel: reeds as far as the eye can see.
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I continued riding for about 500 m when it became apparent that this was not going to be a very good trail to go all the way to Carentan. I turned around, talked to the fisherman for another little bit about on-road routes that I could take, and continued navigating on streets. Shortly thereafter I came across signs for the Véloroute du Parc des Marais. It was not a véloroute that I had been aware of before, but my luck following signs have been good so far. It eventually took me through various wetlands north of Saint-Lô, on gravel paths bordered by reedy plants for almost as far as the eye can see. Although I did not realize it at the time, it was following a small river called the Taute.

The Véloroute du Parc des Marais ended rather abruptly at a busy intersection in Carentan. I barely had enough time to be able to register the transfer from countryside to cityscape when I noticed that there was a pizza truck across the intersection. Everything else was pretty shuttered and industrial, so it seemed a little out of place, but on the other hand there was a lot of traffic going by. I made my way across, and up to the counter. There was one young woman inside who took my order: a pizza with a bunch of toppings including an egg, and a Heineken. An older woman was also in the truck, but shortly after I arrived she exited the truck, and walked around front with a comfortable retirement chair and sat down. I also sat down, at one of the less-comfortable chairs next to the café tables. I said hello as I was sipping my Heineken, and she asked me about where I had been biking that day. Her name was Marie, and soon I learned that she was the mother of the owner of the pizza truck. It was a very new business, and this was its first weekend in operation. Marie had come here to cheer her daughter on as she started her business. She also became a rather engaging storyteller: I asked her about whether Normandy was just an (invasion place), and whether the culture of the area was still affected by the second world war.

“Of course it is becoming less so all the time,” she said. “But, I was born before the end of the war and I remember my parents being employed in the cleanup afterward. For several years after the war, both of my parents were employed to clean up the effects of the war around the shoreline. During the war, I know that my father was sent to Germany, and she and my mother spent the war separated because of that.” She thought it was safe to say that World War II was still a strong part of what it meant to be Norman, especially near the coast. I was somewhat surprised to hear that: I had expected the prominence of Normandy in American’s mind to be simply because so many of them had visited there during the war. What I hadn’t considered, though, is how much the war actually affected everyone who lived in Normandy at the time. The Americans that came here saw at most three months of combat; civilians in Normandy lived through four years of war and occupation. Marie very emphatically encourage me to go and visit Pointe du Hoc, and outcropping that featured prominently in Operation Overlord.

It had now been a long day, and I look for the nearest campsite. There is one that was directly next to Utah Beach, but that seemed like it would be excessively touristy and possibly expensive. I picked the next furthest, Camping La Baie Des Veys. I expected to start seeing Americans in the campground, given the proximity to their history, but the license plates predominantly said “Netherlands” as usual. I paid €22, the highest amount I probably ever paid for a campground in Europe. It was also a remarkable campsite in that no toilet paper was provided in the stalls – if you forgot to bring yours, you could buy some in the gift shop. I couldn’t help but think back to little Tessy-sur-Vire that had provided hot water, toilet paper, and a campsite all for free.

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