This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

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.

At low tide, the harbor is almost completely emptied of water, its 40-foot stone walls rising like the fortifications of an ancient castle. Seagulls, huge birds about a foot long with fearsome red-tipped beaks, hover over the port, often swooping down to swipe fish off the counters of the vendors' stands that line the quai.

We often buy fish there. It is so fresh that the sole and skate and turbot and cod are still flopping around on the counters. Today we bought two sole and a large sea bass. The fisherman's wife who runs the stand offered to skin the sole for us, but they were still alive so we declined. We have seen the fish mongers skin live sole for other customers, but didn't have the heart to order such a flaying. In any case, as the seller insists, sole cannot be eaten the day of the catch. It has to "rest" 24-hours.
    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.
Back in Saint Valery, we had dinner at the unassuming Eden Café, which offers some of the best local seafood in town. We both had a dozen oysters from nearby Veules-les-Roses and skate with capers. Before leaving this morning, we took another walk on the beach. The weather was mild for September. There was almost no wind. The sea was calm, with gentle waves rippling on the receding tide. The water is a milky aquamarine colour, due to the pounding of waves against the base of the chalky cliffs. The cliffs themselves tower like canyon walls more than hundred feet high. Sylvaine says she can hear the sound of the insides of the cliffs straining to break free. All I hear is the wind and surf. At the top of one cliff, near the casino, sits the remains of a German pillbox that once surveyed the sea with machine guns at the ready. Today it is just a perch for seagulls.

During the war, the German occupiers forbade the fisherman to go out further than 500 yards, lest they seek to communicate with enemy ships. Several boats were blown out of the water for venturing past that limit. The locals, those old enough to remember, tell me that the people who went along with the Germans got along; those who resisted were mercilessly suppressed. Yet there were resistors, just as there were collaborators, and black marketers, and lonely women who fell into the arms of handsome German soldiers. Strange, dark things happened here in those days—and their repercussions are still felt today.
     That is the subject of my latest novel.

1 comment:

  1. I am looking forward to reading this novel! What is the title, and when will the novel be published? I looked on Amazon and didn't see it yet. However, I did see a novel by you titled THE ARMAGEDDON PROJECT. How did I miss that you had written a novel? I LOVED your memoir, SONG FOR MY FATHERS! Thank you for this great post on Saint Valery-en-Caux. From the photos and your own description, it seems to be a starkly beautiful place, holding memories of pain and of life. I am so glad to know news of your coming novel!