The City of Light and Beyond

A visit to Paris, the Loire Valley and Normandy was decades in the making for Chiles T. A. Larson. But France’s fabled cathedrals, châteaux and charming city streets were worth waiting for.

In my early twenties, an opportunity presented itself to visit Paris. However, because I would only be able to set aside a few days there, I felt the enchantment from the “City of Light” might fade from just a short stay, particularly when I was traveling by myself. So instead, I opted for a two-week stay in Denmark that offered the possibility of locating Larson family roots in the upper reaches of Jutland.

My youthful intuition certainly felt vindicated when, decades later, I finally found myself in Paris—with the prospect of soaking up the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this intriguingly beautiful city—after my wife, Bernice, and I decided it was time we visited France together. This would be the trip I had always hoped to make. My wife is not only fluent in French—after years of teaching the language—but also enjoys a number of old friendships in Paris from a period prior to our marriage.

With our arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport and the usual bustle of clearing customs and collecting baggage in a large international hub, we were, unlike most passengers arriving, fortunate to be able to avoid dealing with transportation into the city.

We were met by Maurice and Renee Pélisser, old friends of Bernice’s from when their son Pascal stayed with Bernice’s family in Greensboro, North Carolina, as an exchange student. Later, she and Maurice enjoyed a professional association when she owned a wine and cheese shop in Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a wine distributor in Paris.

Not only did Maurice intimately know all the fine restaurants in the city, he also knew how to navigate the traffic, and he whisked us quickly away to the city in his compact little Audi. Before taking us to our hotel, the Hôtel Edouard 7, located in central Paris, he pointed out a building on the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe where Thomas Jefferson resided between 1785 and 1789 while serving as minister to France. A small memorial plaque has been placed by the entry.

On arrival at the hotel, we learned our room was not ready. The register had a line asking guests their occupation. I simply put “travel writer,” and upon our return later that day,  voilà! Our modest single room had become a suite with a private balcony overlooking the Avenue l’Opéra de Paris.  

The next morning, we hiked up to the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur, the highest point in the city, and then explored the special charm that radiates throughout Montmartre. It is a local saying that Monmartre is to Parisians what Greenwich Village is to New Yorkers.

Paris is best enjoyed on foot, because the slow pace allows one to better appreciate and enjoy the enchantment coming from all quarters. A late afternoon shower briefly interrupted our stroll from Notre Dame Cathedral along the Right Bank towards the Eiffel Tower. The combination of beautiful late afternoon light and damp reflections from the rain made for a series of pleasing photos. I was able to capture a Bateaux Mouche with the Ile de la Cité and the Pont Neuf in the background; the Pont de la Concorde arch, with a single stroller walking under it; the Pont Alexandre III, with its row of beautiful golden street lamps, and a final twilight photo of the Arc de Triomphe, taken from the safety of a pedestrian stand in the middle of this famous avenue.

We spent the next day strolling through the numerous galleries of the Musée d’Orsay, prominently situated on the Left Bank of the Seine. The building was converted from a 1900 Beaux Arts railway station and, in 1986, after extensive remodeling, opened as a museum. The massive structure features four giant clocks on the main façade located at each corner of the building. It is best known for its extensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by artists such as Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, whose use of light made Bernice’s heart sing, she said.

It is easy to understand the romantic spell Paris holds on people. Although we spent just a few days experiencing the enriching sights and sounds, we felt we had made a modest connection to the magnificent metropolis. We would like to have stayed longer, but there’s more to France than just one city.

The Pélissers had worked out a plan for us to next visit the wine-growing region of the Loire Valley. We spent our first night in the medieval town of Chartres in a forgettable little motel inn that was too close to the highway for restful sleep. However, seeing Chartres Cathedral, constructed between 1193 and 1250 and considered one of the finest examples of the French High Gothic style, made up for the restless night. Listed with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, it is equally notable because of the hundreds of sculpted illustrations of key theological themes and religious figures adorning the building’s three great façades.

The Pélissers’ choice to tour the Loire Valley, with its storied history, gave us the opportunity to spend a little time looking over several imposing châteaux. For this, they selected Chenonceau, which features a romantic, arching gallery that spans the River Cher like a bridge, and the impressive formal gardens of Villandry. We were told there were more than 300 of these distinctive structures, ranging from the Medieval to the Renaissance periods, studded along the banks of the Loire River out to the Atlantic.

This venue was also planned in order to visit the vineyard and winery of Maurice’s boyhood friend Roger Aygalenq, who produces the highly regarded Chinon wines made from Cabernet Franc grapes. Since Chinon is considered a Frenchman’s wine, it is rarely exported, and my wife had not carried it in her shop. As a Medievalist, she was thrilled to be in the shadow of the famous Château de Chinon, where Joan of Arc came in 1429 to try to persuade Charles VII to fight for his kingdom.

Bernice had been asked to bring a dressier outfit for a banquet during our stay, but we were not told that this formal ceremonial dinner would be under the auspices of the Entonneurs Rabelaisiens de Chinon, an ancient wine society. The event was to be held in a massive cave in the cliffside under the castle. That evening, while Bernice was on the dance floor, a guest whispered in my ear that Bernice had been tapped to become a member, and was presented with a large medallion and certificate of membership. She was also required to consume a goblet of wine before the applauding assembly.

The following day, the Pélissers drove us to Normandy where, after a warm goodbye, we joined a group tour of the little village of Lisieux, sponsored by the College of William & Mary Alumni Association. This location is in the center of Normandy, which meant easier access for day trips throughout the province. Normandy is an extraordinary region of France. With its close proximity to Great Britain across the English Channel, one would think successful invasions might have been commonplace, yet there were only two. The first was led by William the Conqueror who, with some 8,000 to 10,000 men on board 400 boats, set sail for England on September 17, 1066, arriving unopposed at a small port in Sussex eleven days later to defeat his cousin at the Battle of Hastings and become King of England.

This action is vividly illustrated in an enormous piece of embroidery known as the “Bayeux Tapestry,” which stretches 230 feet and is divided into a large number of scenes, featuring hundreds of participants. It dates from the 11th century, but the colors are astonishingly fresh. Tradition has it Matilda, William’s wife, and her ladies in waiting wove it, taking pleasure in depicting William’s outstanding achievement. The tapestry is exhibited at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. 

The second successful invasion was June 6, 1944, D-Day, a day that is ingrained in the modern psyche as the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. We visited the five code-named landing sectors that stretched along 50 miles of Normandy’s shoreline where 160,000 allied troops landed. The American 4th Infantry division hit Utah beach, with the 1st and 29th divisions assaulting Omaha beach. The British attacked both Gold and Sword beaches with Canadians landing at Juno. The success of these landings was based on many things, but surprise, extraordinary planning and top-down secrecy were the major components.

The 29th Division had been a Virginia National Guard unit prior to the war. Among the 180 men in Company A of the 116th Regimental Combat Team, 34 were from Bedford County. This was the first wave to go into action at Omaha. At the end of the day, 19 had been killed in action. In proportion to its size, no other community in America would suffer such a staggering loss in the invasion. Bedford was selected by Congress to be the site of the National D-Day Memorial. Eleven of the 21 total casualties from Company A are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.

Having read about and seen photographs of the massive and pitiful litter of equipment of every description scattered all over Omaha Beach—the wrecked tanks, half-sunk landing craft, the dead and wounded either lying in the sand or floating among the debris—we were overwhelmed and deeply moved at seeing, through misty eyes, the perfect order in which the graves were placed and maintained.

We learned there were three Medal of Honor recipients buried in the cemetery. Tech. Sgt. Frank D. Peregory of Charlottesville is among the three. One grave I was interested in locating was that of Maj. Thomas D. Howie, a former football coach at Staunton Military Academy, who was killed in action on July 17, 1944, just prior to the assault on St. Lo. I had known something about this American hero as a young boy, and it was touching to locate his grave.

Howie had been encouraging his troops before the battle, saying, “I want to be the first man into St. Lo.” This was carried out. His body, with an American flag draped over it, was placed on a pile of rubble in front of the St. Lo cathedral. A full page photograph in LIFE magazine appeared later with a simple caption, “The Major of St. Lo.”

Next, we took a quick day trip to Honfleur, a charming harbor town, which is a popular vacation spot. A number of artists—including Claude Monet, considered the father of the Impressionist movement—found the town and nearby seascapes compelling subjects for their creative efforts. Monet paid tribute to Eugene Boudin, a native of Honfleur, for the early influence he had on his painting, and the pair were joined by several friends in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

The following day we traveled to Giverny, located a little more than halfway between the coast and Paris. It is noteworthy as the place chosen by Monet for his residence. Unfortunately, on our visit, his garden, which was the subject of many of his paintings created late in his life, was packed with tourists, making it challenging to compose pictures, particularly of his famous water gardens.

The final day of our Normandy stay was a visit to Mont Saint-Michel, the legendary granite island off the Normandy coast. Seeing it in a misty light recalls the drip castles we used to make out of sand at the beach. It truly has a fairy tale look about it. Talk about castles with moats surrounding them! The half-mile causeway connecting the island with the coastline has a tidal swing of some 46 feet and, when the high tide begins returning, it comes in with the speed of a galloping horse.

Mont Saint-Michel is both a monastery and a fortress. The first humble church was consecrated in 706. Soon another church was added, and it became a place of pilgrimage; then a handful of monks moved on to the windswept rock. In 960, an important Benedictine abbey was founded by Richard I, Duke of Normandy. Subsequent buildings, rising in tiers, were added over the centuries. Watching high from the slender steeple over all below is a statue of the Archangel Michael.

We made our way up to the cloister via a series of twisting stairways, up stone steps, through ancient portals and a veritable labyrinth of passageways that have been established at different levels from one century to another, marking the diverse periods of architecture.  

Looking out over the vast stretches of exposed sand surrounding this hauntingly spiritual island, revealed for us during the low tide, made the spiraling climb to the summit a fitting conclusion for us to reflect on this foray into France. Paris, the Loire Valley and Normandy provided us with a touch of the cultural fabric of this special country. I was delighted to have experienced it now, with someone who knows and appreciates France, rather than by myself earlier. Good things really are worth waiting for.  

À la prochaine fois! Or, until the next time!

This article originally appeared in our April 2012 issue.

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