Lisieux, or outer Lisieux, was easily found, and actually getting into our accommodation was relatively straight forward, if by straight forward you mean three circuits around roundabouts and a wrong turn with a detour (or deviation as they’re known here) to the supermarket. See, easy! We stayed in an Ibis Budget motel overnight, and although the name and price said Budget, the room was surprisingly nice. Although under refurbishment at the moment with construction in the lobby and line-marking in the car park, the motel is clean, modern – in the ecologically friendly fashion, or so our towels told us with a sign that they, the towels, had planted trees. I’m still trying to figure out the mechanics of that one too – and after the quaint but small confines of our Parisian apartment this felt impossibly decadent – the bathroom so large there was no chance of bumping into anything if you were to drop the soap! After such a large and late lunch at Monet’s we’d opted to skip dinner that night, but now in the light of a fresh and crisp morning we were ravenous, thank goodness we’d stopped and bought some muesli and milk (for the teabags we’d bought in Paris, only to discover we were out of milk, now however we had no means to boil water. The quest for a cup of tea is becoming a tedious joke!) for breakfast! Once nourished and with the car repacked we hit the road intent on making our way to Falaise, which should have been easy. Famous last words.
The ‘scenic’ route started the minute we left the driveway of the motel, instead of being able to enter the round-about and turn left we were funnelled into an on-ramp onto the road heading in the opposite direction. No worries, we think, we’ll just wait until the next round-about and come back. 5km later was the next one. Sigh. So back we come and manage to get onto the road to Falaise, or so we thought. No sooner had we settled ourselves down for the trek than our favourite ‘deviation’ sign popped up, the road through was blocked off and we were quite literally sent all over the Pays de Auge for the next hour (whilst following the deviation signs this is) until we popped back out onto the road to Falaise, about 5km down the original road from where we were turned off. At least we saw some pretty, and some awe inspiring, typical French houses and farm buildings on the way. Scenic route indeed. After a healthy two hours further driving we arrived into Falaise, and our quest to find the castle began. The Chateaux was actually sign-posted quite well, though the access seemed to be hidden from view of the main road. We followed the road around the very bottom of the castle, along the waterway that once served the tanners – and saw the tiny waterfall spouting forth where it’s said that Duke Robert of Normandy first cast eyes on Arlette and was so moved by her beauty that he pursued her with fervour – before ‘accidentally’ going cross-country to the nearby car park at the foot of the castle. By ‘accidentally’ I mean that whilst the road swept up onto another main road I spied a car park that the restoration team had forged a track cross-country to, and as the weather had been warm and dry I saw no reason to drive around when we could just as easily follow their lead and go there. Perhaps though had I followed the road proper we would have naturally followed the castle wall and instead of parking down the hill, we would instead have parked up the hill, a scant 100 metres from the castle, on the cobbled streets, in actual parking bays. Instead of down a long path to the bottom of the hill and a long, long way from the entrance. Sigh. On the upside, the trek did take us right past the door to a Boulangerie where we picked up some fresh baguette for lunch!
Having travelled much of the length and breadth of the UK I’ve seen, and explored, a lot of castles, from the crumbling ruins of Kenilworth and Urquhart to the near perfect Warwick and Dover, but even with Warwick’s interpretive centre and it’s mannequins in staged rooms I’ve never been as awed as I was just standing on the grounds at Falaise. Not because it’s in such amazing condition, because it’s not. After subsequent wars and petty political vendettas Chateaux Falaise is a tired ruin of a once magnificent castle, but instead of leaving it crumbling into oblivion the caretakers have done a remarkable job in preserving its structure – using modern concrete construction to protect the remains and to give the visitor an idea of what the site would have looked like in its prime – but also in creating an interactive computer rendered application that walks you through the castle in the medieval period. It has ‘keys’ that when highlighted give you information on various items within the keep or rooms, what they were made of and used for, a full 3D rendering of each room, encouraging you to step back through time and really feel what it must have been like to be in the building during the reigns of William and Henry I. It may be a ruin and sadly due to the resentment of William the Conqueror, and the view that he stole/usurped the throne from Harold, this castle is much maligned and forgotten, banished to the pages of history never to be mentioned again. But for me, having seen and walked the full length of the Bayeux Tapestry, this site is every bit as important at the tapestry, for in reality it’s this castle that in being the home or Arlette, of her giving birth to Guillaume here, of his early years spent playing and living in this castle, this truly is the birthplace of the England we now know, and a more peaceful, serene and picturesque part of Normandie we have not seen. Long live the King, huzzah!
The trip through the flat farming lands surrounding Falaise that slowly gave way to the rolling hills and woodland groves leading into Fougeres again proved to be one of detours and scenic routes, what should have taken a mere couple of hours quickly spanned four, and it wasn’t until much later in the afternoon and into the dimming light of early evening that we finally arrived at our destination. It has been a long day, perhaps the longest filled with travel apart from the long-haul flights that is, and the promise of an evening with friends and a home-cooked meal were beyond enticing. An oozing lasagne with a crisp garden salad, warm baguette and butter – a novelty in France as they don’t as a rule have butter with their bread – followed by a slice of one of the nicest tart au citron I’ve ever delighted in. Yes, a long day, but one filled to the brim with treats and treasures, of unexpected beauties and surprising discoveries. Tomorrow and Friday we’ll be spending in Brittany with friends before leaving France for England on the last sailing in the late afternoon out of Cherbourg.