“Mon dieu!” Or should I say, “Merde!!!”
The first thing I am aware of is the phone ringing in the pitch dark of my hotel room. Frantically tripping over furniture in the dark, I find the phone just as it stops ringing. What time is it? Find iPhone—-9:13 am! What happened to the 6:00 am wake-up call? What happened to the 6:00 am alarm on my phone? Oh, I set it for 6 pm! What time was I supposed to meet everyone in the lobby? 9:00 am! Call down to front desk to tell them I will be there as quickly as possible. “Madam did not answer your phone and you are late. Everyone is waiting for you.” Nothing like stating the obvious.
I step off the elevator in my bare feet, boots and socks in hand, everything thrown into the suitcase willy nilly, to meet two leaders who I am sure were exasperated with me but tried not to show it. Sheepishly enter the meeting room to see every head snap around to see who was so late. I apologize, quickly sit down, and lace on my boots. Leaders give their spiel and we get in the vans and we are on our way (without breakfast I might add).
The countryside is beautiful. We are traveling along the Seine toward the sea but it is hidden in fog. This area is known for fruit orchards and dairy cows.
Finally we turn in the Manoir d’Apreval, a family-owned estate surrounded by an abundant apple orchard, specializing in several types of cider, Pays d’Auge Calvados, Pommeau de Normandie, cider vinegar and pure apple juice, and cultivating a total of 17 varieties of apples. The owner came out and described the whole process from picking the apples off the ground, washing and sorting, crushing and oxidizing the apple to get the color, to pressing, fermenting and bottling, or distilling and storing in kegs before bottling.
After the tour we were invited in for lunch. We started with an aperitif, the Pommeau, which is a blend of two thirds of apple juice before fermentation and one third of young calvados which then ages in oak barrels for 18 to 24 months. It has an alcohol content of about 17.5%. Considering I had no breakfast I could feel it in my knees. Next we were served duck pate from the farm next door, tomatoes and lettuce from their garden dressed with their cider vinegar, cucumbers in creme fraiche, and roasted potatoes with herbs de Provence. All this was served with their naturally sparkling cider. Refreshing and not too sweet. French cider is alcoholic, but only about 4%. Dessert was ginger bread with chocolate chips, caramels, and a digestive of a 15 year old Calvados (only 42% alcohol). Yummmmm.
Time for our first hike into Honfleur. Everyone grabs hats and sunscreen and walking sticks and finally ready to go. Up through the orchard, across a small road, and up into a nature “preservative”. (The guides’ English is pretty good—much better than my French, which doesn’t exist.) The preserve was originally an English estate. Unfortunately the British brought rhododendrons from India which, while pretty, are an invasive species here.
So we traipsed up and down through the forest and then along country roads of “small” manors worth upwards of one million euros. Thatching of the manor roofs is a rage, however very expensive. There are few craftsmen who still know how to construct them and they need a lot of maintenance. The ridge of the roof is finished with clay to waterproof them. Because clay cracks and shrinks when dry, they plant irises in the roof ridge. The rhizomes store water and prevent the clay from completely drying out.
Finally we arrive to the hill above the port of Honfleur on the estuary of the Seine. Here there is the old Chapelle de Grâce, honoring Notre Dame de Grâce, a patron saint of the fishermen of Honfleur. The original chapel was built by Rollo’s son after he felt that he had been saved by the Saint from a storm on the sea. That church was destroyed by a landslide and later rebuilt. Claude Monet also painted this chapel.
While the outside is pretty ugly, the inside is more unusual. The walls are covered with marble tiles carved with pleas or thanks to the saint from fisherman or families of the fisherman. There are also paintings of boats offered by the crews asking for mercy and guidance. Most unusual and beautiful are the replicas of boats that hang from the ceiling.
Finally we stroll down into the harbor and our hotel. Our hotel is so close to the center of town that the only way we could be closer is to sleep in the church. We stayed at Les Maisons de Lea which is composed of a restored salt warehouse and three 16th-century houses. This means that the place is a collections of odd little staircases and hallways that is so confusing that the staff must show you to your room because no one could explain how to get there. My room was up a narrow staircase under the eaves. Outside my window was a small black cat on the chimney.
That evening we walked down to the old port along original cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks (two people cannot walk side by side) to a little restaurant where we took over the second floor, climbing up a curved stairway so steep that you had to pull yourself up a rope. There we had a pear aperitif, a kind of “shepherd’s pie” of ground beef and veal covered with mashed white and sweet potatoes and cheese melted on top. This was served with pear cider and the whole meal topped off with an apple tart with creme fraiche and the pear equivalent of Calvados.