Are you contemplating the exciting yet slightly daunting prospect of attending Normandy 2014 (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about then clearly you aren’t)? If so, I have a few tips to help you prepare for your adventure.
The first thing you will need to do is learn how to correctly pronounce the name of the host city, so that when you inevitably become lost at an airport, train station or highway intersection – and if you’re a really bad navigator, all three – you will be able to articulate your destination in a comprehensible fashion to the French person you have carefully selected (by clothing and age) for assistance. Caen isn’t pronounced ANYTHING like you would expect. If you can speak a little French, just pronounce ‘Caen’ the same as you would say the French word for ‘when’. If, however, you don’t know how to pronounce ‘quand’, discard this as an option because you will probably end up pronouncing ‘Caen’ so badly that no one will have a clue what you are trying to say.
If you are a member of the non-French speaking majority in North America, here is a tip on how to pronounce ‘Caen’. Start to say the word ‘con’. Just as you get past the first two letters and begin to approach the ‘n’, imagine you are at the dentist’s and your tongue is frozen, refusing to make contact with your upper palate. The ‘n’ kind of vanishes into your throat. The only potential pitfall to using ‘con’ as your pronunciation guide is that ‘con’ is in fact a common, vulgar insult in France. Make sure to convey to your potential French guide that you are looking for a place, and not calling him a name. We all tend to raise our voices and get a bit frantic when we can’t make ourselves understood to someone who doesn’t speak our native tongue. Shouting ‘con! con! con!’ at a French person is not likely to get you a whole lot of help.
And still on the topic of French language, segueing into French culture and attitudes: even if you don’t speak more than two words of French – which in the case of most people would be ‘bonjour’ and ‘oui’, but in mine would be ‘biere’ and ‘vin’ – everyone loves it when a foreigner at least attempts to communicate in the language of their land. It shows respect and a desire to understand the culture of the place you are visiting. Even if you have only a few words, don’t be afraid to jump in. Swallow your fear of making a mistake, especially in France, for this simple reason: in all my travels and all my attempts, however feeble, to say something in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, German or Czech, there is only one people who have never hesitated to correct my errors. You guessed it, it’s the French. If you ask a French person a question in his or her native tongue, and you make some small mistake of grammar or pronunciation, you can expect to receive a correction to your diction before you receive an answer to your question. Don’t be offended. Take it as a free lesson, and don’t be discouraged from trying your French again next time.
Now that we have our linguistics up to speed, it’s time to think about the accommodations. I have, at both Jerez 2002 and Aachen 2006, arranged some sleeps for any friends/acquaintances who have like-minded tastes to mine when it comes to lodging. That was my primary motivation in doing my recon trip to Normandy last week, to suss out potential places to stay for my pals and me. I prefer quiet and independence in my accommodations, and price is a factor since I go on my own nickel as a freelance journalist. Fortunately, France has this kind of charming, inexpensive accommodation in spades. It’s called a Gite Rural, or more commonly now since so many Gites are actually in towns and cities, simply a Gite.
If you plan to fly directly to Caen and avoid the perils of French driving by not renting a car, then a hotel as close as possible to the main stadium is probably the way to go. The Normandy 2014 website has a page dedicated to accommodations, and is probably your best starting place. If, however, you like to have morning coffee in your PJs, or even in the buff, and would rather awaken to the sound of birds than traffic, you might want to check out the Gites de France website to see if that is an appealing option for you. Your wallet is almost certain to think so.
Here is where the planning of accommodations merges with deciding what disciplines you want to see at WEG. Just one look at the calendar for Normandy 2014 reminds me why WEG is such a nightmare for me compared to the Olympics, because there is just too much to take in. It is physically impossible to see all the action, particularly at this WEG. You see, the venues are rather wide spread around the region. And I do mean wide. From Caen, where all the stadium stuff like show jumping and dressage are taking place, to the Haras du Pin, where eventing dressage and (more importantly for most spectators) cross country are taking place, you are looking at a minimum of one hour’s drive, and that’s in perfect conditions as well as assuming you know exactly where you are going – which the first time you are certain not to.
The Endurance competition, easily the least aesthetically pleasing discipline, takes place, ironically, in one of the most aesthetically beautiful settings – not just in Normandy, but on Earth: Le Mont St. Michel.
If you happen to be into Endurance and want to see it at WEG, you are looking at a solid hour and a half drive from Caen. In the exact opposite direction from the Haras du Pin.
Here is my advice for those of you who want to take in any of the eventing: if you are interested only in the cross country, and don’t care to walk the course before cross country day, then stay as close to Caen as you like, or even right in it, and just plan for one very early start on cross country day (but don’t stay anywhere north or west of Caen because that will only increase your travel time and potential for getting lost or stuck in traffic). If, like me, you need or want (okay, for me it’s need more than want) to watch some of the eventing dressage or if you definitely want to peruse the course beforehand (WEG courses are always SOLID 4 star courses), then I recommend finding a place to stay somewhere between Caen and Haras du Pin. Closer to Caen is probably more sensible if you can find something suitable.
Here is one last bit of info that I gleaned last week, and it has to do with one’s tastes in destinations. If you like large, fairly industrial cities, then by all means find yourself some sleeps right in Caen. The historic centre is predictably impressive with its old monuments, but don’t expect a charming little ville. That part of Normandy is a vast plain: flat and very inviting to the industrial sprawl that extends outward. If you are a fan of war history, you may want to consider staying up on the coast above Caen and taking in the landing beaches and multiple museums/memorials that dot that entire coastline. There is plenty of accommodation around there, and depending on the beach you are near, lots of Canadian and American flags all over the place to keep you from getting homesick.
I found the hilly area between Caen and Haras du Pin to be the most attractive area to think about bedding down for 18 days or so. The area known as Suisse Normande isn’t really much like Switzerland due to the complete lack of Alps in the background, but it’s pleasingly rolling farm land dotted with chateaus, ruined abbeys and charming little villages selling every conceivable product made from apples. I plan to find for me and my peeps some nice gite not more than half an hour from Caen and hopefully not more than 45 minutes from the Haras du Pin.
The area around Haras du Pin is simply gorgeous. If you are going to WEG mainly or only for the eventing, I recommend looking for a place to stay as near to that venue as possible, and just suck it up for one long drive to Caen for the stadium jumping phase.
Okay, that’s my Normandy primer for today. If you have further questions about WEG (keep in mind this is my fourth, so I do know my way around these gigs), just leave a comment at the bottom of this post and I’ll get back with you on the next one. But now, Chorizo has demanded to be taken to some megalithic sites and then to a beach so I’ll leave you for today.