Slightly longer version (with photos you can click on!):
Day 2, cycling from Vimoutiers to Pont L’Eveque.
It’s a long day, 37 miles in total, but there’s some fabulous cycling, and some very interesting visits that are very Normandy.
Vimoutiers, with the best will in the world, isn’t the most beautiful stopping place. But it sets up the best of days.
To start the day we cycle down a big hill, and how can that be wrong? But almost immediately after leaving Vimoutiers we join a cycle path that follows an old railway track all the way to our first port-of-call, Livarot.
Camembert, and other Normandy Cheeses.
Camembert has been the best-selling cheese in France since they used to send it to their troops on the front line in WW1. Since then it’s become a daily staple in Normandy.
Whichever region of France you’re in, you’ll often see dishes or drinks served with a regional suffix. In Normandy, anything ‘Normande’ means they’ve added a bit of camembert or a drop of calvados. Of course, usually this means they’ve ruined it, but they’re convinced that we tourists love it. The locals just eat camembert as it comes, with virtually every meal.
The cheese factory is fascinating. We get to see the whole process, and depending on what they’re making on the day we’ll see the making of Livarot, or Pont L’Eveque or Camembert. It’s good. Either come and have a look, or take my word for it.
St Thérése of Lisieux
From Livarot we have a beautiful ride through empty countryside. We see lots of the half-timbered farmhouses that are such a feature of Normandy, lots of orchards and Norman cows with their distinctive ‘spectacles’. It’s fairly easy cycling, but we have two memorable hills, and everybody loves a good hill, right? We usually have a picnic, then we cycle downhill all the way into Lisieux, which is basically a small city completely dedicated to the memory of their most famous daughter, St Thérése of Lisieux.
Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in Lisieux in 1873, and died of tuberculosis in 1897, aged just 24. Pope Pius X called her ‘the greatest saint of modern times’, but without going into details of her life, what makes her interesting for us is that she lived recently enough for there to be photographic and audio records of her life and her thoughts.
I think she is an interesting person, and if you want to find out more about her ‘little way’, and her book ‘The Story of a Soul’, read about her here.
But the relevance for my favourite day is the enormous Basilica dedicated to her in Lisieux. It’s the 2nd largest christian building built anywhere in the world in the 20th century. When we’re coming down the hill into Lisieux, we see a church, and people often ask “Is that the Basilica?”. The scale of this thing is so vast, as soon as you see it you don’t have to ask, and if you have to ask, that ain’t it!
Everything in Lisieux is dedicated to Thérése. You’ll see a blue line on the pavement – wherever you are in the city, just follow the blue line, it takes you to the Basilica. The inside is very grand, there are thousands of visitors everyday, particualrly Carmelite nuns (of which Thérése was one). You don’t have to have any interest in religion – I have none – but the building itself is incredible. It would be the highlight of any Chain Gang day, but we haven’t finished yet.
The Boulard Distillery .
We leave Lisieux along a secret little path that feels like we must have gone wrong. But we’re not wrong, just sneaky, and we come out on a flat road that leads all the way to Pont L’Eveque. On the way we pass through the village of Coquainvilliers, and visit the Boulard calvados distillery.
Often in the UK calvados has the reputation of a cheap, rough apple-based spirit. Nope, that ain’t it. In Normandy they treat it with respect, and we visit a couple of distilleries including the prestigious Boulard distillery.
We learn all about the process, and in the tasting room they take us through a selection of progressively older, more beautiful calvados. They have a bottle on sale for €2,800. But the stuff at 1/50th of the price is pretty special too.
And we’re done…
a flat 12 Km to the hotel in Pont L’Eveque, and a great dinner at the Auberge des Dominicains, and that’s my favourite day in Normandy.
You have two chances this summer to see if you agree with me:
1. June 25th – July 2nd
2. September 3rd – 10th.
On reflection, Day 5, when we visit the cemetery at Hermanville, the Canada Centre, the site of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches and the Bayeux Tapestry, cycling along a beautiful coast road and finally staying at the Lion D’Or in the centre of the Bayeux old town, that might be the best day. But I’m not starting again!