Friday, September 13, 2013
SAINT VALERY-EN-CAUX: a town with rugged cliffs and a tragic past—the backdrop for my latest novel
Just back from a two-day jaunt to Saint Valery-en-Caux, a small town in Normandy flanked by towering cliff walls. Saint Valery has an interesting history. It was the site of the last major battle before the French capitulated to Germany in June 1940. Rommel surrounded the town with his Panzer divisions and bottled up a French and Scottish force, taking some 20,000 prisoners after the Allies surrendered. The part of the town that faced the seafront, heavily damaged by German artillery, was completely razed four years later to give the occupying force a clear view of the sea in the event of an attempted Allied landing. (The actual D-Day landings took place some 50 miles to the south.) The rubble from the demolition was dumped into the sea to impede Allied landing craft. You can still see chunks of brick and mortar at low tide.
That part of town was hastily rebuilt after the war with graceless, blocky buildings of brick and concrete. The older neighborhoods are composed of traditional structures made of brick and silex stones. The silex comes from the chalk cliffs, resembling the cliffs of Dover, that rise over the rocky beaches on both sides of the harbor. A lighthouse with a green lamp guards the entrance to the narrow port. Each day, the local fishing fleet, consisting of half a dozen small trawlers, leaves the port at high tide to return when the tide rises again. Over the years, many Saint Valery fishermen have been lost to the churning sea; their names and the names of their craft are engraved on marble plaques in the local chapel.
On arriving yesterday we headed straight to the Hôtel de la Poste on the central market square for a lunch of moules marinières and fries. That is always our traditional first-day meal, since this establishment has the best mussels of anyone along the Channel coast. After a long drizzly walk on the near-deserted beach, we took a drive along the coast, through the picturesque town of Veules-les-Roses to the village of Varengeville-sur-mer. There's a linen goods shop in Varengeville that Sylvaine always likes to visit. This part of Normandy is the world's biggest producer of flax, from which linen textiles (and lots of other things, including bread) are made. Most of it goes to the Chinese textile market, but the Lin et l'autre shop in Varengeville features 100% local merchandise.
That is the subject of my latest novel.