The mellow corner of France that feels like the England of my youth


A little further north, towards Montormel, the scenery remains soothing – birdsong, hedgerows, fields, the little Dives stream – but the story isn’t. This is the Falaise pocket where 100,000 retreating German soldiers were almost encircled 75 days after D-Day. Allied forces – British, US, Canadian, Polish, French – beat them into submission. About 50,000 escaped as the pocket’s neck tightened, 40,000 were captured and 10,000 killed. That the Dives Valley is now as quiet and sleepy as a Sunday afternoon is perhaps nature’s compensation.

On Hill 262, where Polish troops often fought furiously hand in hand to close the pocket, the Montormel memorial explains it all (memorial-montormel.org). It covers the end of a campaign that had begun weeks earlier on the beaches of Normandy, killing some 20,000 Norman civilians. The full experience of the occupation and civilian suffering is the focus of the Civilians’ War Museum in the city of Falaise itself (memorial-falaise.fr). Out of a million stories, the one that stuck in my mind was about Edmone Robert. She was a Norman primary school teacher, communist and member of the early resistance. Arrested in her classroom in 1942, she was sent to the camps, survived until the end of the war – then died on the train on the way home.

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This is micro history. There is macro history in the medieval castle that towers over the town. Around 1028 this was the birthplace of William the Bastard, who went from ‘bastard’ to ‘conqueror’ 38 years later. The castle is monumentally intact – bristling like a brigade of ancient warriors – but if you’re one of Charles III’s more distant ancestors. The visit is engaging, but involves more and steeper stairs than some seniors appreciate (chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr).

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Camembert and Calvados

Later I drove to the most famous hamlet in the world. In 1791, a priest fleeing the revolution showed the local dairymaid Marie Harel a new way of aging cheese. She named the result after her hamlet: Camembert. The place is no bigger today (population: 176) than it was then and has long since lost the monopoly of camembert production. You can and do it in Hungary and Brazil. But the real stuff is still made locally and that Yes, really real stuff that uses raw milk has an AOP, just like fine wines.

The Maison du Camembert and its museum are as welcoming and informative as you would expect from a cheese factory. You will learn that Camembert really took off as France’s number one cheese when it was included in the rations of soldiers in World War I (maisonducamembert.com).

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I drove on, further into the so-called Pays-d’Auge. If the postman was Pat French, he’d be driving around here too. It has the idyllic serenity it needs, with apple trees everywhere. This is apple country. The harvest is in full swing as we speak. In a valley near Crouttes, the half-timbered farm Galotière catered for my apple-driven alcohol needs. Calvados mainly, because I have serious doubts about cider: a child’s drink in adult clothes.

See for yourself at the apple harvest festivals in Vimoutiers, a hop from Croutte (15-16 October) or the no less nearby Sap-en-Auge (12-13 November).



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