We got on the bus on the correct side, the driver drove on the right, and we couldn’t understand anyone. We must be in France! Although we are only 130 miles from Southampton, Le Havre felt like a totally unique destination, the only one on this cruise not part of the United Kindom. Some of our fellow passengers boarded buses for Paris. Le Havre boasts that it is the Gateway to Paris, but Paris is not a coastal city and their tour drove three hours each way. Perhaps if we had never been to Paris, we would have been game, but we have so we were not. Others went to the Normandy beaches, site of the World War II invasion - only a two hour drive each way. While we are cognizant of all the sacrifice and heroism that occurred at Normandy, military activities just aren’t our cup of tea. So we stayed on the coast and took a short drive to Fecamp and Etretat. Le Havre was heavily damaged during the war and although the center city was restored, it looked for the most part like any modern city. It was surrounded by agriculture. The typical farm pattern appeared to be a group of trees which protected the farmer’s home and his animal buildings from weather, surrounded by large, unfenced fields.
Our French guide had a good vocabulary, but his accent was a challenge to decipher at times. Apparently when monasteries flourished in France, the monks busied themselves with using local herbs and spices to create liquors. After some political turmoil the monasteries were destroyed and the recipes almost lost. In the mid 1800’s a man named Alexandre le Grand found the recipe that the Benedictines had concocted and he got permission from Rome to be the official producer of this yummy elixir today called Benedictine. He recreated the Abbey as a magnificent building in Fecamp and made part of it into a museum. His collection interests ranged far and wide and we saw religious art and carvings as well as a huge collections of keys and hinges from old chateau that had been destroyed over the years. The ceilings of the Abbey looked like the bottoms of ships and indeed they had been built by the local carpenters who usually made their living building boats for the cod fishing trade. The rest of the Abbey building was devoted to the manufacture and bottling of Benedictine. Other areas of France have similar liquors made with different local herbs and spices and each region feels that theirs is the best. Of course the tour ended with a tasting and we would have bought a bottle if only we didn’t have those scales at the airport to deal with down the road.
Etretat is a pretty sea side town that Monet loved to paint. We climbed the chalky white cliffs at the edge of town to get great views of the coast and the natural bridges formed by the waves in the cliffs. It looked like the cliff walk went on for a long way and we wished we had more time here. Many local tourists were also enjoying the beach, but it was made of stones rather than sand, so we wouldn’t enjoy spreading a towel and catching some rays there.
We returned to a somewhat despondent cruise ship. All but 400 of us are getting off the ship tomorrow in Southampton and people were busy packing and thinking about the long journeys ahead. But all we have to do is figure out what we are going to do in Southampton while they all get off and our new shipmates arrive.