Sometimes, when travelling, I have been a little disappointed after finally visiting a place I had really looked forward to visiting after reading about it and seeing pictures of it for many years. Normandy was not such a place.
For almost my entire life I have seen pictures of the D-Day landings, seen movies about the battle, and read many history books on the subject. Similarly, Mont St Micheal is so well-known that it seems as much an icon of France as the Eiffel Tower. And finally, over the years I have read a great deal about the Bayeux Tapestry, seen pictures of it, and looked forward to visiting it. In all three cases, however, visiting these sites in Normandy was thrilling, moving, and beautiful, in turns.
On our first day, after a very early morning drive off of the ferry in Ouistreham, outside Caen, we drove to Bayeux, less than an hour away (even allowing for one missed turn on the ring road around Caen). After petite dejuener in the city centre, we were first in line at the museum which houses the Bayeux Tapestry. An early start, coupled with the time of year, let us enjoy the tapestry at out own pace, with no crowds. The tapestry is magnificent, stretching over 70 meters long, and still amazingly colorful after its creation over 900 years ago. We were given an audio guide in English, which explains the story being told in each of the over 30 panels. Although some describe the tapestry as “cartoon-like” because of its one-dimensional representation in embroidered wool, I was impressed by the level of detail in the pictures, and thought the artists were able to portray both movement and emotion quite well in the sewing. Historians still debate the sponsor of the work, the location of its creation, and the identity of the artists, but there is no doubt that it gives a compelling and understandable telling of the events which led up to the Norman Conquest and a depiction of the climactic battle between the army of William from Normandy and the Anglo- Saxon army lead by King Harold. The museum also contains interesting exhibits which describe the Norman influence in England. in my history lessons at school we frequently had to address the question in history about how much one individual might affect history versus that person being merely representative of a particular time or mood. In the case of William the Conqueror, I think his influence in assembling and leading the invasion force, and then in governing after the Conquest, is tremendous cannot be overstated, his impact lasting up to the present time.
From the tapestry, we headed to the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral, which towers over the city in much the same way that the spire of Salisbury Cathedral towers over our city. The cathedral is both Romanesque and Gothic, and the Gothic portion of the cathedral contains huge windows, making it one of the brightest cathedrals I have seen.
The city centre contains many historic buildings, including many timbered buildings that in England we would call “Tudor”. Thankfully, although the city is only 6 miles from the D-Day beaches, it was spared from destruction during the fighting, and is very beautiful. Several of the streets had banners with French, British, and American flags flying on them. On the way out to the edge of the city we walked into a pretty and historic little abbey. Since we had recently seen the Sound of Music, we kept expecting to see Maria, but alas, we were the only ones about.
On the ring road around Bayeux we found the city museum to on the Battle of Normandy, and we enjoyed the movie and exhibits there. Just across the street from the museum is the largest British cemetery from the Normandy campaign, and it was very moving to walk among the gravestones there. The stones contain not only name, age and regiment of the deceased, but also a personal message from each soldier’s family. These personal messages, such as “Our only child, now gone to a better place”, were especially touching, as was being reminded by the youth of so many of the soldiers who died fighting for liberty and the destruction of the most terrible tyranny. The cemetery contains over 4,000 graves, and across the street is a Memorial to over 1,800 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Battle of Normandy and have no known grave. The Memorial has a frieze with the following inscription (in Latin), “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.” A moving end to a memorable day.
We set off early the next morning from our hotel in Caen for a full day of visiting the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches. We began at St.-Aubin, part of Juno Beach where Canadian forces landed, and worked our way westward, through the rest of Juno Beach, then Gold Beach (British), and on to Omaha Beach, with the large American cemetery, and out to the end of Omaha Beach at Pointe du Hoc. We saw the remains of the huge artificial ”Mulberry” harbor, nicknamed Port Winston, at Arromanches. We visited the huge German gun batteries at Longues-sur-Mer. We came through the sand dunes at St.-Laurent, where the Americans made their first exit from the deadly fire on Omaha Beach. We walked among the still pock-marked landscape of the forbidding Pointe du Hoc, taken by the American Rangers at a large loss of life. And we finished the day at the very sad German Military Cemetery in La Cambe.
It’s difficult to describe my feelings about the day. All day long I could feel the presence of all those soldiers, so far from home, and the tremendous sacrifices all of them made. Walking among the beautiful marble crosses and Stars of David in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach, I could barely speak, or even swallow. It’s simply a very remarkable place, with a very tangible sense of recent history. One author in America has labelled the generation that fought here as “The Greatest Generation.” Seeing this landscape really proved the truth in that description.
On our last full day we headed to the southwest corner of Normandy to visit the fantastic Abbey at Le Mont St-Michel. As I have already written, the setting of the abbey at the top of the rocky island, the surrounding bay, the small street leading up all the steps to the abbey, and the abbey itself, are all really amazing and beautiful, and to me even more impressive in person than it looked in pictures. It was a really nice day and different in tone from the day before.
We did have a partial day before returning to England, and we spent that time enjoyably first visiting the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, and then touring the apple, cheese and Calvados-producing areas south and east of Caen. We had a lovely picnic of locally produced apple juice, locally produced Camembert cheese, and a baguette.
We have wonderful memories of Normandy, and we hope to be able to visit again.