Seeing Sights and Encountering Friends

As we were planning our ferry trip to France, we’d learned that our friends Fiona and Spencer would soon be arriving in Le Havre for the beginning of their own honeymoon. Given our current Airbnb reservation, we would miss them by a day, so we tried to extend, only to find that not only was our place booked on the following nights, but so was everywhere else in town. Chalk it up to a massive influx of Americans coming to watch Thursday’s USA-Sweden match! Fortunately for us, we’re equipped with bicycles and a tent, so we were able to secure accommodation at a campground in scenic Honfleur, just across the wide Seine River.

Honfleur isn’t more than a few miles south of Le Havre as the seagull flies, but the wolf-runs route takes some 15 miles, as you travel east to the Pont de Normandie, then back west through an odd mix of apple orchards and industrial parks. As its name would suggest, Le Havre is the second-largest commercial port in France (after Marseille), and we had the chance to ride straight through this massive working port on the way to Honfleur.

Beyond the port and before the Pont de Normandie

As we made our way toward the port, Sara took a nasty spill on a poorly-marked lip in the sidewalk, and gashed open her elbow. Fortunately, a gentleman across the street came to help. He turned out to be not only a fluent English speaker, but also a physician, a cyclist himself, and a Jew! Talk about the complete package. He inspected Sara and found that she was fine other than the cut, so we gratefully continued on our way.

Just after we arrived at our campground in Honfleur, a sudden thunderstorm opened up on us. No freaking way, we thought to ourselves; we left England to avoid exactly this! Happily, the rain soon died down and we were able to explore the town in the long midsummer light.

In addition to being a really really ridiculously good-looking coastal town, Honfleur is a center of the cider and apple brandy industries of the surrounding department of Calvados. As we found at dinner, buckwheat crepes and Emmental cheese go great with a dry cider.

We watched that night’s WWC games at a jazzy cafe (drama galore in the Scotland-Argentina game) and headed to sleep in our mercifully dry campground, by the historic lighthouse:

Here, by the by, are some key ways that camping in France is different from camping in the US:

  • Hot showers are standard issue and free to use.
  • Toilet paper and hand soap, however, are not. We found ourselves raiding restaurants’ supply and packing our pockets with paper napkins!
  • There’s always room for bike tourists, even if the campground is theoretically full.
  • And, best of all, almost all campgrounds have a bakery delivery service!! You order bread and pastries the night before, and the baker delivers them straight to the campground. This is France at its finest.

Anyway, the point of our extending our stay near Le Havre was so that we could connect with Spencer and Fiona, so the next day we took the bus (which was packed with Swedes and Americans, all sporting their respective colors) back into Le Havre and joined up with them near the waterfront. It was so great to see them as they begin their own lengthy trip! Fiona is a highly proficient French speaker, which doesn’t hurt, and a fanatical devotee (and practitioner) of women’s soccer. Spencer and Fiona are also both city planners by training, so it was an important opportunity for Sara and me to nerd out with people who are not ourselves.

Over Lebanese sandwiches for lunch, Fiona suddenly spotted Julie Foudy, a star from the legendary 1999 US women’s national team, standing next to the Yogurt Cup. It turns out that she was providing commentary for ESPN, and her producers had wrangled together a sizeable mass of enthusiastic and potentially inebriated American soccer fans to stand behind her. I reckon there hadn’t been so many Americans in Normandy since, oh, around the middle of 1944.

Our further sight-seeing in Le Havre (“au Havre,” I guess) included the city hall, a snazzy public art piece composed of brightly painted shipping containers, and St. Joseph’s Church, built by Auguste Perret, that caliph of concrete, that monarch of modularity. From the outside it looks fairly nondescript. From the inside it’s a riot of color and light, and it looked to me like nothing if not some sort of futuristic missile silo. I wonder what it looks like when they’re charging the laser?*

Although Sweden has occasionally gotten the better of the US women’s team, the Americans handily won that evening’s game, as we watched from our now-familiar cafe in Honfleur. Perhaps in celebration of this win, or more likely moved by the powerfully present memories of Americans’ last big win in France, we made a fairly abrupt decision to travel west to visit the beaches on which, 75 years to the month earlier, Allied troops reopened the western front on D-Day. We’d been planning to bike straight up the Seine to Paris, but figured the city would still be there a few days later than we’d planned, and we knew that this month represented a uniquely potent moment in which to visit these sites.

So westward it was! We set out the next day, at the crack of noon.

* I have been asked by the Seine-Maritime government to clarify that St. Joseph’s Church is not, in fact, a giant laser.

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