A Travellerspoint blog

Quiet contemplation

Honouring the dead of Normandy

sunny 10 °C

Today was Sunday. Although not religious individuals, we honoured the day as one of quiet contemplation and allowed our bodies and our minds to rest a little - this holidaying is a hell of a strain you know! That does not mean that we did nothing - it just means that we did it more quietly and at a slower pace.

This morning was definitely at slow motion. I didn't sleep as well as I have been and was awake on and off from 0430. Hugh thinks it was pre-game nerves. What game? Well Collingwood were playing Carlton today and for the first time in 20 something years I wasn't there in person to see it. For those of you who wonder what I'm talking about, this is Australian Rules football. Collingwood are my team and the team that others love to hate and Carlton are the team that we hate the most. It's a rivalry akin to Liverpool and Everton or Manchester United and the other team. 83,000 were at the Melbourne Cricket Ground this afternoon to see it - I wasn't. I was, however, listening via web radio to the match coverage and cheering into my coffee and singing the song over my croissant as my team came from behind to win. And then on with the day. Hugh kindly went to the boulangerie and brought home croissants for a lazy breakfast and under a thin sunny sky we went out to explore some more of this remarkable coast.

Foreign soil

Foreign soil


First of all today we went to the German cemetery which is just up the road. It's a very human and personal affair and the names and ages on the markers leave a lump in your throat. To see that many of the boys there were barely 20 and some had not yet turned 18 was heartbreaking. Along with them lay men in their 40s and 50s - too old to be dying in a young man's game. There is a sense of isolation about the place and you feel for these men lying in unfriendly soil. So many graves were marked simply as "Ein Deutsche Soldier" - so sad, so lost. There is no sense of the welcome inclusiveness of Attaturk's speech to the Australian, New Zealand and British dead at Gallipoli:

“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

No sense that these were young men doing their job because they had no choice. It was a priveledge to honour them albeit briefly and clumsily and to shed tears at their loss and at the reminder that the only inevitability of war is that young (and old) men will die.

In enemy soil

In enemy soil

From the German cemetery it was a short trip but a lifetime away in experience to Omaha Beach. It was slightly bizarre walking on the beach itself and trying to imagine what it was like to enter it at dawn on a June morning with people shooting at you. It was even more daunting when we looked beyond the beach and saw the size of the dunes that had to breached that day - nothing really prepares you for it.

The Braves

The Braves


On Omaha Beach

On Omaha Beach

After following the beach, we visited the American cemetery. You've all seen it in Saving Private Ryan and it's an incredibly moving and powerful place. It is however slightly jarring. Everywhere else along the coast - every memorial and museum - has been welcoming, peaceful and respectful. At the entrance to the cemetery however we struck a security check that was worse than the airport and it jarred. What has gone wrong when the victors of 1945 feel so threatened that everyone is treated as a potential threat? It was a wonderful display and beautifully done. Inside is a reminder of the human cost of war. There is one particularly stunning display which is tucked away before you go out to the cemetery. There are three walls of rusted steel with a sky light above. In the display case is a bed of large grey pebbles and in the middle is an upturned rifle with fixed bayonet stuck into the ground, with a soldier's helmet on the sitting on the rifle butt. This bit is chilling. Then you through a short tunnel and a female voice is reading out the names off each dead soldier. You hear names as your get close and then about four or five as you walk through. You get the feeling that the voice is going to go on for ever and never repeat a name.

Omaha

Omaha



We should try to be kinder to and more understanding of each other.

We finished the day wandering through Grandcamp Maisy and remembering that this was a town that was largely blown away on D-Day. There is a small American Rangers museum which was, again, exceptionally personal and evocative.

Tonight we had dinner in a restaurant on the rebuilt wharf and watched fishing boats go in and out as they have been for centuries. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I love Normande and will leave here with the greatest of reluctance. We should all come here to remember what we owe so many and to glory in what we saved.

Posted by dawnandhugh 13:38 Archived in France Comments (1)

I remember why I'm proud to be British

Pegasus Bridge

sunny 7 °C

I cried again this afternoon. After Bayeux we visited one of the sites that I was eager to see - the Pegasus Bridge memorial near Benouville which is on the Caen Canal between Caen and Ouisterheim. On the night of the 5th and 6th of June 1944, 6 Horsa gliders containing 181 men of the British 6th Airborne Division landed next to the bridge just after midnight. The forces, led by Major John Howard (no relation) captured the bridge within 10 minutes and held it until relieved later in the morning - firstly by parachutists and then by Lovatt's commandos who had landed as part of the D-Day flotilla and marched the seven miles in, arriving 2 minutes 30 seconds later than scheduled. The importance of holding the bridge was critical in its ability to limit the chance of German counterattack. It's another key scene in the Longest Day and, for me, sums up the English (British) spirit.

First Allied capture on D-Day

First Allied capture on D-Day

The Pegasus Bridge

The Pegasus Bridge

When we got to the bridge - a new bridge now as the original is actually in the museum - and saw the memorials and the markers where the gliders landed - two literally within feet of the bridge - I lost it again and, without trouble, envisaged the scene at midnight and the forces swarming across the metal - overcoming the guard towers and removing explosive charges - and the determination to "hold until relieved". The museum, like all that we've been in along the coast, was beautifully done and had some fabulous photos of both occuppied France, of participants in the raid and aerial shots of the bridge before the assault. Wonderful.

Major Howard - my Dad met him

Major Howard - my Dad met him

We heard a story last night from our landlady of a friend of hers whose daughter lives in a village in Devon which was the home of Mullin who was the personal piper of Lord Lovatt - how very medieval - and, apparently the village have raised the money for a statue to be commemorated this year on 6th June. Louise's friend remembers Mullin well - he passed away a couple of years ago - and apparently half the village are coming over for the event. And, I think, that this is one of the wonders of being here. It's the very personal stories that you strike everywhere and the memories that can't be ignored. In the bookshop at the memorial, I bought a book by the mayor of St-Mere-Eglise in 1944 about the night - so many memories. So much history. So much to be thankful for.

Posted by dawnandhugh 11:34 Archived in France Tagged d battles d-day Comments (1)

The ultimate sewing circle

Bayeux Tapestry

sunny 7 °C

The sun shone today. The rain and wind stopped and, while the temperature didn't get above seven degrees, Normandy was a better place. Our relaxed evenings sitting in front of the fire are paying dividends and we both slept well and rose without protest about 7 o'clock this morning. We're still not fast at getting out - my theory is that we do that the rest of the time at home so why do it on holiday - and we weren't on the road before 9 but it was good. Not getting wet when I opened and closed the gates for the car was also good.

Today we went to Bayeux - a lovely, slightly sleepy ancient town set away from the coast. Uniquely for many of the major towns and cities in this area, Bayeux avoided enemy - or Allied - bombing during both the invasion and the "liberation" and is in a more 'natural' state as a result. In 1944, eight days after D-Day, General De Gaulle arrived back on French soil for the first time since the surrender of 1940. His aim was to establish and confirm the legitimacy of his Provisional Government and confirm that he was the man to lead France in the post war world. He made his way to Bayeux and made a speech outside the town hall. As a Frenchman, he must have been delighted by the relative lack of damage. He then visited Grandcamp - where we are now - and Isigny-sur-mer (the next town along). As these two towns are on the water, they were virtually destroyed during the bombardment and invasion. Visually shaken, De Gaulle made another speech at Isigny before leaving to return to England.

But back to Bayeux. The main purpose of the visit was to see the famous tapestry which is an early and creative version of the adage that the winners re-write history. We got to town and found a park away from the centre as we'd been warned that it was market day and we knew things would be hectic further in. As it was such a lovely day walking really wasn't an issue so we went first to have a look at the market - didn't buy anything but it's always fun to look - and then joined locals and tourists alike wandering down the main street. A pit stop for a much needed coffee was followed by a visit to a baggage shop as we need another suitcase. Things are going fine at the moment with everything in carry bags and all over the car but on Thursday we give the car back and we have to manage our luggage on trains and then on planes. We were well under our luggage allowance when we came over and always figured we'd be taking more back. As we've bought coats and woollens, it's a given that we've run out of space so a nice lightweight case was just what the doctor ordered. Hopefully that's all we'll need but we can sort the rest out either in Paris or when we get to the UK. We are sending home a couple of parcels of gifts as they're bulky and it's easier that way.

Beautiful Bayeux

Beautiful Bayeux

Bayeux is a funny place especially for a medieval city as there isn't a town centre as such - no square, or fountain or central focal point. There is an absolutely magnificent cathedral but it's located slightly out of the centre and as a result it's a little tricky to navigate. However, we managed to find our way to the Tapestry without trouble and started the journey. I'm familiar with the content and the story but, for once, we both listened to the audio guide which provied tremendous insight. As I said, the tapestry - or to be strict, the embroidery - is a case of the victors writing the tale. Or early propaganda. As William the Conqueror - and the name gives it away doesn't it? - won both the battle and the kingdom, it was inevitable that the story told would be from the Norman persepctive and, while the sewing was actually done by Saxon ladies from England, this is definitely the case. Historical accuracy or not, the tapestry is a wonderful work of history and of art. The extensive detail and colour and the stories told in both the main panels and the frieze at the top and bottom, is breathtaking and has truly stood the test of time. There is one piece in particular which shows the Norman knights on horseback readying themselves for what would be the Battle of Hastings and the depth and sense of mass that has been achieved with colour and stich is stunning. I absolutely loved it.

After the tapestry and the visit to the gift shop - you know why we have a problem with packing now - we found a lovely restaurant and decided on a leisurely lunch. We had the Taste Normande menu at 27 euro per head and had - for me: foie gras, Maigret Canard a la Orange, fromage and Pomme Tarte (foie gras, duck with orange sauce, cheese and an apple tart). Hugh had: chevre salad with chicken gizzards, cod in a package with asian flavours, the cheese and a taste of apple - sorbet, puree and calvados. All delicious!

Bayeux Cathedral

Bayeux Cathedral

Bayeux

Bayeux

A lovely lovely day in a lovely lovely town.

Posted by dawnandhugh 10:46 Archived in France Tagged churches art meals Comments (1)

A different kind of history

Le Mans

snow 4 °C

First let it be said that yesterday was cold, wet and windy. We had more rain/sleet and possible snow than we've had on any other day since we've been here and that's really saying something. The temperature gauge in the car didn't go above 4 degrees.

We, however, had a good day as we trundled off to Le Mans for the day. We've had some raised eyebrows and "oh reallys" about driving there from here but it was a must go location on the trip and when we looked at the maps and our base accommodation over the journey, a day jaunt from Normandy made sense. Yes it was a two and a half hour trip each way but we're Australians and have been known to go further for lunch!

As always, Hugh had made copious pace notes and worked out where we had to go and as always we got into the car and stuck the destination into Sally and followed her instructions - luckily they were the same as Hugh's (we think!). It was an uneventful journey down. The thing that struck us again was, with the exception of around major cities such as Caen, how little traffic seems to travel on motorways. On days like yesterday this is a good thing as conditions were hairy. We managed the tollbooths without drama - starting to feel much better about this which is ironic as we only have one more big drive to go.

Arriving in Le Mans we completely ignored the town which we believe is absolutely charming and headed straight to the Circuit. Oh yes, this was a pilgrimage of sorts as Hugh was more than eager to see the home of the 24 Hour race. The Museum was our first port of call. I had some interest in this but it is limited. Having said that, it was Hugh's day and as he's been more than supportive of my interests - hello! Harry Potter detour! - I was prepared to allow him all the time he wanted or needed. So long as there was a chair or two and somewhere to get a coffee, I was happy. I really didn't have to worry in the end as the museum really wasn't quite what we thought it would be. After a promising start which featured some of the heroes of the event in a photo gallery, it became a collection of cars through the eras. Well, yes, I'd expect a motor racing museum to be about cars but a lot of the older ones were street cars with tenuous connections to the event and the race cars were limited and an odd choice. Also, disappointingly, there was very little in the museum about the event - perfect opportunity for viewing rooms with video and newsreel footage or something. I was surprised and disappointed for Hugh when he was ready to leave in about 45 minutes and was lamenting the long drive for very little.

It was after the obligatory stop at the gift shop - where a goodly haul was purchased - that things got interesting. We were able to buy circuit entry tickets for a paltry sum and told to show the ticket to the security guard. Didn't see a guard and just walked in. Working - as we do - on the maxim that anywhere is okay until someone tells you otherwise we wandered our way through the paddock area in the middle of the track and into the main pits and right onto the pit wall. Okay, now that's an experience! I've been in the pits at races and practise in Australia but this is Le Mans and the coverage in June is going to have a whole new meaning now.

Much happier and no longer grumbling about the wasted trip, we headed back to the car as further precipitation arrived. The next big thrill was finding, with only one mis-turn, the road circuit for the 24 hour race. Well this was exciting, even for me. We got to do a full lap - certainly not at race speed or even at the speed limit - but we could look and Hugh could point out the landmarks to me. A good end to the trip!

By the time we left Le Mans the rain/sleet/snow was coming down quite heavily and we had ice warnings for the car. There were all kinds of things that we could have done on the way home but, given the conditions, none of them sounded attractive. What was attractive was the thought of our cosy gite so we came home and relaxed a little - well a lot actually. Our gorgeous landlady, Louise, came in a bit after 5 and lit the fire for us - such service is wonderful - and we chatted over a bottle of wine before dinner in the nearest 'big town' which was okay. Power was on and off intermittently throughout the evening - we're slightly nervous about that as apparently it was off for three days in early March!!!! Any hoo - more adventures today as we go to Bayeux.

Posted by dawnandhugh 22:53 Archived in France Tagged snow driving Comments (2)

Falling over history

Honfleur and Arromanches

overcast 6 °C

Today started a little slowly as we had a pretty ordinary night. After some monster beds earlier in the trip, we've lately had some tiny affairs - well double beds actually - and things have got a little cosy. In Brittany we found ourselves rolling like synchronised swimmers trying to time things right so that we didn't knock each other out. Here in Normandy, the bed is bouncy and comfortable but small and because it's bouncy, when Hugh rolls over, I get motion sickness Given my recent sttomach ailments, this is not a good thing and last night was rough . Hugh had a similarly disturbed night so the 6.30 alarm got ignored and it was after 8 before we got moving. Fortunately once we got up we got moving with some dispatch and we were out before 10 - good for us!

With lowering grey skies and threatened urkiness we headed down the coast to the the medieval glory of Honfleur. This port, which apparently inspired Monet and others, is a wonderful tumble of half timbered buildings around the old port which, mixed with the grey of Normandy stone is a delight. Apparently, when the sun shines, the light here is extraordinary and a delight to paint. Sadly, today, the sun barely shone so the place was washed in grey. It's still incredibly lovely and a pleasurable place to wander around.

We parked without drama on the harbour and set off to explore. It is a town made for meandering. The cobbled streets wander away from the port filled with timbered and slightly tumple down buildings. Take away the modern gloss and you could easily be in the 13th century and the modern tourists in their thermal clothing - needed to battle the elements - looked slightly out of place. Almost by accident we came across the 13th Century church - St Catherine's - I have to confess that I thought it was the Halle (market hall) as it is an incredible almost barn like shape. Inside it was as quiet and worshipful as any we've visited and as a building can be when it's full of tourists. A separate building houses the bell tower for the church. There are various stories as to why this is separate. One theory is that it's to avoid damage to the church in the event of lightning strikes on the tower but the official version is that the church buildings weren't strong enough for the weight of the bells.

We had a substantial lunch in town at a restaurant on the port. We sat outside - well rugged up in our duffle coats (which have barely been off our backs since we bought them) - and enjoyed local seafood and a couple of wines. We also shopped for dinner in a little patisserie - quiche lorraine no less - and bought some little things.

We left Honfleur with the intent of coming back to home base. I am still struggling with tummy troubles and had a wave of nausea while walking around. As we headed down the freeway coming home, however. we saw the exit for Arromanches and decided to detour. Fast forward our history lesson from a town founded in the 11th Century to a harbour founded in the 1940s. Arromanches in the home of the remains of the Mulberry harbour - Port Winston - one of the shining stars of the D-Day landings.

As we came down the hill toward the town, you could see the remnants of the harbour which are still clearly visible nearly 70 years after their "temporary" placement. Will you be surprised to know that I cried again when I saw them? We had a quick look at the museum - had to be quick as we were there only 30 minutes before closing - but really it was about seeing the real thing that got to us. After spending yesterday in awe of the American efforts - which are not to be denied - it was with a sense of pride that I actually saw this testament to British thinking and determinaton. Churchill's comment - They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves. - and the little known fact that the concept for Mulberry was developed in North Wales - swelled my British bones and for once I didn't mind being taken as a Britisher (although I did explain to him that I was Australian!!).

Home about 6 o'clock after a day that ended up much better than it started. Dinner was the quiche with salad and abottle of wine. I'm enjoying a cognac - bought in Cognac - and about to enjoy an apple pastry. Thus ends another day in Normandy. Tomorrow may be Le Mans if all goes well! Bonne Chance!

Posted by dawnandhugh 12:56 Archived in France Tagged landscapes beaches meals d-day Comments (1)

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