Just before leaving Alameda, a local wine merchant pointed out that Normandy was a land bereft of wine, but overflowing in Calvados, their famous apple brandy named for the department or state where it was invented and where it reigns supreme. Being an invincible optimist, I remained confident that I would find some good wine along the way. Well, now in our fourth day in Normandy, my optimism wanes, Calvados is indeed ubiquitous, and the wine lists, save for one, have been comical in their simplicity and deficient in their offerings.
After arriving in Paris, whose clogged roadways and suicidal motorcyclists put to shame anything an American metropolis can muster, we headed west towards Chartres for a stop at the great cathedral there, and then on to our first night’s destination, Mont Saint Michel. We had reservations at a hotel inside the abbey’s walls and were eager to finally stop moving.
Rick Steves, the travel writer, describes the commercial strip inside the abbey walls as “grotesquely touristy,” but I think he’s taking it a bit easy on this collection of shops, eateries, and lodges. He insists there is some consolation in knowing that it’s been this way for 1000 years. Perhaps, but that consolation did nothing to soften the blare of the garish signage and ponderous foot traffic that filled the steep slopes and steps around the mount. For me, the consolation came in discovering that the commerce below was merely a freckle on one of the most powerful sites I’ve ever been fortunate enough to visit. A pre-medieval wonder, at once a grail for pilgrims, a center of religion and learning, an insurmountable fortress that has withstood centuries of assaults, and a masterpiece of engineering, art, and architecture, Mont Saint Michel surely deserves its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly, all this power and grandeur has done nothing for the local wine lists.
At the hotel restaurant before dinner I asked to see the wine list. The folder I was given was identical to the sheet I had seen an hour before at a cafe several hundred yards away. Was Mont Saint Michel one gigantic concession run by a single outfit? Anyway, after dueling with our congenial waiter to see if my French was worse than his English (mine was), another waiter, who we later discovered was proficient in several languages, came over to answer my questions. I wanted to know why the menu only listed regions, all French, and only one bottle from each. His answer was powerfully refreshing. “Our wine here is not very good, but it does not matter,” he explained. “This is all tourism and nobody pays attention. So having good wine would be a waste, it would not be appreciated.” Wow. This guy told it like it is. And, when dinner came around and we ordered what he himself thought was the best value of the mediocre lot, we knew he was telling the truth.
Next, a pleasant surprise in Bayeux. And some thoughts on Calvados: the good, the bad, and the ugly.