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History and hospitality converge in the Normandy countryside

Published 12/07/2011 12:00 AM

You know you are in the right hotel when you see a trumpet vine growing through the bathroom window.

When my husband and I arrived at La Maison d'Lucie in Honfleur, Normandy, in early autumn, the gracious concierge helped us carry our heavy bags to the second floor. "The hotel is named for Lucie Delarue-Mardrus," she told us, "a poetess and romancier (novelist) who lived in this house from 1874 to 1943."

Situated on the Normandy coast, where the Seine River meets the English Channel, the graceful, historic town of Honfleur is a

2 ½-hour drive from Paris. During the 19th century, artists such as Eugene Boudin, Monet and Manet would meet in Honfleur — drawn by the luminous light — and stay at Boudin's farm, Saint Simeon. Today it is a five star hotel and restaurant. There is also a "vieux bassin" (Old Harbor) in town which is surrounded on three sides by bustling sunny cafes, a carousel and an extensive outdoor market on Saturdays.

Honfleur is in an ideal location for day trips — to Bayeux, to view the 11th-century embroidered tapestry depicting the 1066 Norman invasion; and to the Calvados region ("route de cidre") for camembert (a pressed, semi-hard cow's milk cheese and one of the most famous in France), Calvados (apple brandy) and cider. It is also close to Deauville and Truville, beach resorts known for their film festivals, casinos and race tracks; Le Havre with its renowned Impressionist museum, Musee Malraux; and the Normandy beaches with their historical and emotional significance.

After we secured a coveted parking spot, the concierge hustled us off down the hill with a small map of the town to "Le Bistrot Artistes," a restaurant housed in a narrow 18th-century building with six tables and an illegible blackboard menu on the wall. The portions were more than generous and the tarte we ordered with ultra fresh tomatoes featured a delicious flaky crust. Our waitress would climb the twisting staircase to the kitchen and then clamber down balancing plates of food, seemingly unperturbed by the danger of falling down the stairs.

The next day we set out to explore the route de cidre, taking a back road and ending at an inevitable "fork." We chose the marked sign to Vasouy and it suddenly morphed into the Chemin des Bruyere. This was a single road — only big enough for one car, so we held our breath. We passed a low wall on our right which went on for many yards until we came to a gated entrance. Slowing down, we noticed a plaque embedded in the wall which (translated) read, "At the risk of her life Marie-Therese Turgis sheltered 7 British soldiers from June 1940 – January 1941." We were astonished and excited to discover such a slice of history by accident. We got out of the car and studied the plaque again and tried to peek into the farm, called Manoir du Parc, but could only see a gatehouse. This was the silent story of those men and women who fought the enemy so bravely behind the lines, and whose courage, for the most part, goes unrecognized.

Our favorite classic French recipes are poulet de cidre (chicken with cider) and pork with Calvados; they are made with ingredients from this region, but are not available in the United States. So it was with great anticipation that we drove on the route de cidre to find the farms making authentic Calvados and cider on the premises. As we parked at one such place, the farmer's wife came running out and ducked inside the barn. She spoke very little English, but somehow through her wild gesturing and our fractured French provided us with a "degustation" — a tasting of Calvados. There are two kinds: one for cooking and one for drinking. The one for drinking is very strong — even a few sips burned going down — and lasted for some time. Soon we drove off with several bottles in our car, past manor houses with fruit trees laden with apples — it was a "very good year for apples" she told us.

The following day, after a superb breakfast of croissants, homemade jam and freshly squeezed orange juice, we set off for the beaches of Normandy.

Vierville-sur-Mer, better known by its code name, "Omaha Beach," looked serene in the light of the late September afternoon and it was hard to imagine the battle that occurred there. The American cemetery resembles a park with beautiful vistas of the ocean and access to the beach. The crowd was respectful as we gazed at all the crosses signifying the terrible cost of war. There is much to see here; museums, films, photographs, cemeteries and miles of coastline with remaining remnants of D-Day.

What the guidebooks don't tell you is that before the park closes, every evening at dusk, a soldier plays "Taps." In the stillness, the crowd remained motionless listening to the single notes being played, while our flag was lowered and folded — a moment which made me proud to be an American.

While driving back to Honfleur, along the 75 miles of scenic coastline — past Longues sur-Mer, Gold Beach and Juno Beach — the road turned sharply south through miles of beautiful farmland with tall poplar trees lining the roadside.

We were so glad that we came and experienced firsthand these unforgettable moments of history, the lushness of the countryside, the charm of the villages, the taste of Calvados, the delectable regional cuisine, the "luminous light" and all that Normandy has to offer. We can't wait to go back next year.