Day 11 & 12 in France: Bayeux and Normandie

1/4 and 1/5/13

Bayeux was our home base for two nights, and while we had a good time there, I would give a word of advice to travelers going to the Normandy area in January; everything is closed, what little is open takes a nice siesta at lunch, and there’s not much to do once the sun goes down.  So our pace, by necessity, slowed down a little while in Bayeux.  On day 1, we wandered the town, visiting the extraordinary Tapestry Museum (featuring a huge tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066).  We learned how William the Bastard became William the Conqueror, and also experienced a narrative audio tour that seemed like it came straight out of Monty Python.  I wonder if the other languages were as funny?

We also experienced the Notre-Dame Cathedral (our third Notre Dame of the trip), which might have been my favorite church of the several dozen we visited. Ok, it wasn’t that many, but it feels like it could have been.

This place was over 1000 years old.  Can you believe that?  And unlike Notre Dame in Paris, it was quiet and reflective and beautiful, a combination of Norman and Gothic architectural styles with amazing nooks and crannies and extraordinary detail in the carvings and decorations.

Bayeux Cathedral

The oldest room in the church was the crypt, which was dark and just a little creepy, but oh so cool.  You could feel history oozing from the walls.

The Crypt

Speak of history; before enjoying another nice Norman-style dinner, this one much more traditional (but still yummy), we spent two hours watching Youtube videos about D-Day and the invasion of France by the Allies during WWII.  I was proud of us for getting through all 12 10-minute videos, and it helped immensely with our visit to the D-Day beaches the next day.

The day dawned grey and rainy, which seemed appropriate, and the drive out to the beaches was muddy and twisty.  Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, where, on D-Day, a company of Army Rangers scaled a huge cliff with the goal of taking out the German guns at the top. It was a jarring contrast; amazing views of beautiful beaches amid bombed out gun batteries surrounded by craters.  Knowing what little I know about guns on warships, it was clear the attack on the Pointe was targeted and thorough, but our history lessons had taught us that the timing of the attack was wonky; the ships bombed the hell out of the Germans, but the Rangers came ashore 3 miles from the cliffs and so when they finally climbed up, the Germans had recovered and were waiting.  More than 2/3 of the Ranger company died before they took the guns.

Omaha beach was next.  It was, simply, a gorgeous beach, and I am still having trouble reconciling it with the images I saw in the videos of the war zone it became, where thousands of men died.  We had a little charmed moment when a golden retriever and her 5 puppies bounded onto the beach; it was hard to be too sad when this was happening:

Puppied on the beach

And finally, we visited the American cemetery and memorial, which was remarkable.  The museum/vistors center is chock full of great info and exhibits, is laid out very well and is clearly designed to give you the proper emotional preparation for walking out to see the memorial and cemetery.  I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d somehow rigged the video we watched based on our sign in at the guestbook, because the video, featuring letters of soldiers buried in the cemetery, featured letters from Arkansas and Wisconsin men (my travel companion, Sarah, is from Wisconsin).  That might be giving them too much credit, but it was remarkable nonetheless.

And as for the cemetery itself, there’s not much to say.  It’s overwhelming.  I can only imagine what it must be like to be there when it’s sunny and warm.

Cemetary at Normandy

It’s hard for me to reconcile the divisive and vitriolic nature of our country today with what I learned while visiting Normandie.  The gratitude and honor paid to Americans by the French in these places was humbling to me, as was the sheer scope of the sacrifices American, British, Canadian and German families made.  You know what they say about history; it’s doomed to repeat itself.  I hope it doesn’t, because as lovely and peaceful a place as Normandy was, the lives lost were too heavy a price to pay.

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