Saturday, May 21, 2011

Normandy Part Deux: Bayeux, Caen, and the D-Day Beaches

Day 3 (Sunday, August 30, 2009)

After another lovely breakfast, I collected my luggage and began the hour-long drive to Bayeux. Although I was looking forward to the next part of my trip, I was very sad to leave gorgeous Honfleur and the charming bed and breakfast.

Once in Bayeux, I immediately checked into my hotel, La Reine Mathilde. Although my room had not yet been cleaned, the girl at the front desk allowed me to store my baggage while I headed out, a huge convenience that I very much appreciated.
Exterior of La Reine Mathilde Hotel.
My room at La Reine Mathilde.

Although there were several cities that I could have chosen from as my home base in the D-Day beaches area, I ended up going with Bayeux as I had read that it was one of the few cities (like Honfleur) that had been miraculously sparred bombing during World War II. In addition, there were several sites within Bayeux that I wanted to visit, so I figured it would be the best choice for myself.

My first stop within the town was the massive Bayeux Cathedral. After entering the church, I immediately realized that mass was taking place. Although I technically was allowed to wander the church during the service, I figured that it would be better to come back once I was able to poke around and explore without hundreds of people staring at me.

Next, I attempted to find the Lace Conservatory, which was listed as being directly across from the entrance to the cathedral. This building offers tourists the chance to see people design and weave lace using the same techniques that were used during the 1600’s. After walking around aimlessly for several minutes and without being unable to find it, I realized that the building was staring me directly in the face, located within a small, half-timbered building. Unfortunately, the sign on the front of the door to the conservatory indicated that it was closed on dimanche (Sunday) so I was out of luck; I hoped to make it back the following day.

Not wanting to strike out a third time, I then headed over to the Bayeux Tapestry in order to see the very famous 70-yard cloth, which tells the story of William the Conqueror's rise from Duke of Normandy to King of England and also of his victory over Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The tapestry is listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register and is nearly 1,000 years old.
I took photos of photos at the museum as no photos were allowed to be taken of the actual tapestry.

Although no one knows for sure, French legend states that the tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror's wife, and her ladies-in-waiting. However, more recent scholars have been led to believe that it was commissioned by William's half brother, Bishop Odo, and then created in England by Anglo-Saxon artists. Regardless of who commissioned the tapestry, most agree that it was to be placed on display within the Bayeux Cathedral so that local residents (most of which were illiterate) could understand the very important piece of history that had occurred so close to them. Although it no longer hangs within the Bayeux Cathedral, the tapestry is now on display for all to view at the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, which has built a winding display case that contains all 70 yards of the magnificent cloth.

My ticket included the use of an audio guide, which provided an interesting but brief overview of the story of the tapestry. As I listed to the audio guide, I peered very closely at the detail of the stitch work on the tapestry; it was absolutely amazing for me to think that the vivid colors of yarn I was looking at had been stitched upon the cloth by someone nearly 1,000 years before my time. It was truly incredible to be able to see this masterpiece with my own eyes. Once finished viewing the tapestry, I headed upstairs, where I watched a video that explained in great detail additional history behind the famous object and also included a reenactment of the Battle of Hastings.

From the museum, I walked back to the cathedral in hopes that I would be able to view the interior without intruding upon a service. On my second attempt at visiting, there was no mass taking place, but there was a baptism in progress. However, the crowd of people participating in the baptism was quite small and there were already many visitors wandering through the church, so I figured it would be safe for myself to do the same. I found this cathedral to be extremely photogenic, especially the beautiful stained glass and the curvature of the lines in the ceiling and walls of the church. After spending about 20 minutes photographing the interior, I left and headed on my way.

Next, I wandered through a few of the back streets in order to explore Bayeux. Although I had not been expecting it nor had I read about it anywhere prior to my trip, I found most of Bayeux’s architecture and buildings to be quite beautiful. Many of the buildings were built from a creamy-colored stone, which reminded me very much of the gorgeous Georgian town of Bath, England.

As I wandered through the town, I found a restaurant that I thought sounded good enough to eat at later that night for dinner. I also decided to stop in at a nearby patisserie as my stomach was already feeling empty. I ordered a chocolate almond croissant covered with almonds. It was delicious, but that should be no surprise in France as I had yet to purchase anything of bad taste or quality from a bakery in this country!
Delicious chocolate almond croissant.


My favorite shot of Bayeux.
Cafe in Bayeux.

Afterward, I headed to the car and drove out of town in order to reach the Caen Memorial Museum. Although there are plenty of World War II museums that can be visited throughout this area of Normandy, the Caen Memorial Museum is the most expensive, and therefore, said by many to be the very best and most informative. There are several exhibitions within the museum, including an explanation to the lead-up to World War II, the battle of Normandy, the Cold War, Nobel Prize Gallery, and the Peace Gardens. In addition to these exhibits, there are also two short movies called The Longest Day and Hope that play regularly throughout the day.

I began in the pre-World War II area, which was presented in the most peculiar but interesting format; a downward spiral stroll that described in great detail the events that took place following World War I and eventually lead to World War II. Next, the lower level of the museum covered hundreds of different details of World War II, from the French Resistance Movement to wartime rationing by civilians to the common food that soldiers would eat. There were so many different displays and exhibits to see that I simply did not have enough time to see them all.
Caen Memorial Museum.
Caen Memorial Museum.
Caen Memorial Museum.
Caen Memorial Museum.
Peace Gardens at the Caen Memorial Museum.
I eventually watched both movies, each equally as interesting. The [i]The Longest Days[/i] movie mainly consisted of actual footage from the D-Day Landings and it’s many battles; the movie did not hold back on any sort of reality as I saw many gruesome photos of soldiers being shot and killed in action. It was obviously tremendously sad, but more importantly, it was real; war is not something you only see on the evening news or in movies. It actually happens in real life and people actually die. In addition to the battle scenes, the move also featured clips from many of the nearby towns and villages of Normandy, showing shots of the towns prior to the war, and those of the towns after they had been virtually obliterated by bombings. Often, only the church would be left standing in what was a ghost town of crumbled or flattened buildings.

I also enjoyed walking through the Cold War section of the museum, which discussed in great detail the propaganda that was used by the governments in both the United States and Russia at the same time; it was fascinating to see how both of the countries would bash each other’s ideals and lifestyles, which were completely opposite in every way possible.

Unfortunately, the Nobel Peace Prize Gallery was closed during my visit, so the tour concluded with a quick stroll out to the Peace Gardens, where I stopped by the US Armed Forces Memorial Garden. My advice to those who plan on visiting this museum is that they should really allow the better part of a day to fully enjoy all that it has to offer. While I was able to cover the highlights in three hours, I did not feel as though I was fully able to appreciate all of the exhibitions, all of which were extremely interesting and well presented and laid-out. In addition, entrance to the museum is on the higher side (about 8 Euros per person, or around $11-$12 USD) so one might as well get their full money’s worth. I was glad that I had toured the museum prior to my day of sightseeing at the D-Day Beaches as it provided a thorough history lesson that would come in very handy the following day.

From the museum, I drove back to Bayeux, where I decided to wander the streets again in hopes of taking better photos of the beautiful buildings, since they were partially lit-up by the sun.

I then walked over to the restaurant which I had selected earlier that day to eat dinner at called Le Drakkar. I had seen a reasonably priced prix-fix menu for 15 Euros earlier in the day, and after reviewing the menu posted outside, I found some items that sounded good enough to eat. I ended up going with the more inexpensive special (11.5 Euros for entrée and dessert). I ordered the same chicken dish (covered in a cream and mushroom sauce) that I had the night before in Honfleur as I had wanted to compare the two to see which was better. For dessert, I requested chocolate mousse.

My dish was nothing special. In fact, the chicken I had eaten the night before in Honfleur was actually a lot better, which wasn’t saying much. Needless to say, I was very disappointed as I had been in France for nearly three days, and I had yet to feel satisfied from a dinner meal! Dessert proved to be slightly better than the entree; my chocolate mousse, while a little too rich, was good. The total bill came to 11.50 Euros; cheap for European standards, but I felt quite ripped off due to the lack of quality!
The not so good chicken dish.

Following dinner, I walked back to the hotel, where I was finally able to access the internet. I had been without it for several days, and was feeling withdrawals!

I later left and walked outside in order to obtain night shots of the cathedral, which was lit up beautifully by a ton of lights. I then proceeded to wander the town by myself, which was relaxing and enjoyable, especially because there were so few tourists out at that time of night (21:00).

Day 4 (Monday, August 31, 2009)

After picking up some pastries for breakfast, I drove over to the town of Arromanches, which was located less than ten minutes from Bayeux. This very small but famous town was ground zero for the D-Day invasion, where the artificial harbor named Port Winston sprung up in a period of just a few days. The prefabricated military harbor had been taken across the English Channel from Britain in sections and assembled just three days after D-Day. While in Arromanches, I planned to visit the Musée du Débarquement (The Landing Museum), watch the D-day show at the Arromanches 360 Theater, and then later walk along Gold Beach.

Upon arrival in the town, my first plan of attack was to visit the theater, as the show played only twice each hour. I parked the car at a free lot, and then walked about five minutes down to the beach. I had read that the theater was located on "the cliffs above the town". From the beach, I only saw one hill that was to the left of me, so I figured that that was where the theater was located. I then walked back to the car and drove towards the “cliffs”, where I was easily able to find a place to park. I walked up a long and steep hill, but after reaching the top, saw nothing whatsoever that resembled a theater. As I turned my head in the opposite direction, I noticed that there was in fact another “cliff” across the way. Feeling quite irritated at having just wasted my time, I tried to make myself feel better by reasoning that I had just received a good amount of exercise! I once again got back into the car, and this time drove over to the Musée du Débarquement (The Landing Museum), which was located next to a pay parking lot. From the museum, I was able to take a free “tourist train” which drove me up the very steep hill to the Arromanches 360 Theater

I arrived at the theater right in time, literally about two minutes before the showing of “The Price of Freedom” was scheduled to begin. This movie shows images captured of the nearby towns, villages, and farmlands prior, during, and after the war on multiple screens in a complete 360 degree rounded room. The movie was great, and absolutely worth the small entrance fee (4.20 Euro). It really helped to set the tone for the different places we would be visiting later that day. The movie would probably be considered by some to be too graphic and distributing, but I truly appreciated the reality of it all.
A shot taken inside the room where "The Price of Freedom" was shown.

After watching the video, I headed back down towards Gold Beach, where I spent quite a bit of time walking around. The sand of the beach was soft and smooth; not at all what I had expected on a beach on the western coast of France. For some reason, I had envisioned beaches like we have in the Pacific Northwest; rocky and filled with driftwood. The size of the beach was overwhelming; the word massive is an understatement as the beach appeared to go on and on forever. My main reason for exploring the beach was to see the remaining pieces that were left from the artificial harbor and scattered all along the edge of the beach. Although the giant pieces of concrete were still whole, they were rusty and covered in seaweed and barnacles. I was shocked to see how many of the concrete pieces from the harbor were still floating out across the way from the beach; truly remarkable, especially considering they had been placed there 65 years ago.
Gold Beach and one of the remaining pieces of the artificial harbor.
Gold Beach.
Pieces of the artificial harbor in the background and foreground. 
Looking down on Gold Beach.
The town of Arromanches and Gold Beach.
A view of Arromanches.
Gold Beach.
The town had both French and British flags displayed everywhere.
You can get quite close to the pieces of the former harbor.
I thought that the pieces were very photogenic.

Expansive Gold Beach.

Looking back towards Arromanches from the beach.

French family enjoying the beach.

Close up shot of the concrete blocks on Gold Beach.

Along with the many American tourists whom were quietly walking along the beach, there were many local French families whom were enjoying a day out on the beach. Initially, I didn’t know what to make out of the laughter and happiness that I heard. At times, I felt irritated that people were out having fun on the beach, appearing as though they were oblivious of the complete horror and amount of death that had taken place 65 years prior on the same sand. I felt as though I was walking through a graveyard, so I didn’t find any kind of humor or happiness appropriate. However, I tried to play devil’s advocate and think of things from their perspective; maybe the French people have always been thankful and aware of the sacrifices that were made by the young men from countries half-way around the world. As a result, maybe they have chosen to live life to the fullest because they never know when that could theoretically be taken away from them. In essence, had it not been for those selfless American, Canadian, and British soldiers whom bravely set foot upon those shores so many years ago, there probably wouldn't be any smiling French people enjoying the beach. Whatever the reason may be, all I know is that I struggled to come up with reasoning that made sense in my mind and sat well with my conscience.

From the beach, I walked up to the Musée du Débarquement (The Landing Museum). This museum provides detailed explanations on how the British and American forces were able to so quickly complete the world’s first prefabricated harbor in a matter of just days. I also watched a video regarding the building of the harbor, which was absolutely fascinating. Although I enjoyed the full-scale models of the harbor, I didn't find the museum to be a must see sight, especially after having toured the amazing Caen Memorial Museum the day prior. Unless you have a lot of time or if you are extremely interested in the material covered in the museum, I would recommend that you skip it.
Exterior of the Landing Museum.
Inside the Landing Museum.

After touring the very small museum, I got back into the car and headed to the nearby Longues-Sur-Mer-Gun Battery. This area contains four German Bunkers (with the rusted guns still inside) and was originally used to guard against seaborne attacks on the city. It formed a part of Germany's Atlantic Wall coastal fortifications. The guns in these bunkers were able to hit objects up to 13 miles away with amazing accuracy, so they were quite deadly. When the American and British forces landed at Omaha and Gold Beaches, the troops were pummeled from this site and many casualties resulted. Only one of the four bunkers was partially bombed out, so I was able to walk inside the other three. It was quite eerie to look from the viewpoint behind the gun, just imagining the sheer terror these guns created and the hundreds (or even thousands) of lives that were killed as a result of the guns.
Longues-sur-Mer-Gun Battery.

Longues-sur-Mer-Gun Battery.
Longues-sur-Mer-Gun Battery.

From the battery, I continued the drive along, eventually reaching the WWII Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. This very famous cemetery is located on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, where so many American lives were lost. Over 9,000 white crosses and Stars of David line the field in a manner that appears to go on forever. Upon entrance to the sight, I first decided to visit the visitors center to review the many exhibits and also to watch a film.
Entrance to the memorial.
Inscription at the visitor's center at the memorial.

What I took away most from the visitor center was the degree of selflessness that all of those soldiers had during the D-Day battles. Most of these men were quite young, and had never been away from home. They were fighting the battle of their lives up to 6,000 miles away from home to protect people they had never met nor did not know. As we all know, so many of these men lost their lives fighting for a cause that really bore no direction relation to themselves, but one that they knew they had to complete for the good of the world and mankind. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like for them, nor the many thoughts that had to have crossed their minds each and every minute of the day, not knowing when life or death may pass their way.

I really began to ponder what would have happened had those brave young soldiers not been successful on D-Day and all of the battles that were to follow. That is a question no one will ever be able to answer, but I do know for sure that had the Americans, British, and Canadians not helped by participating in the war, I definitely wouldn’t have been standing there that day in an American war cemetery in the faraway country of France. Everything in this world would be completely different from what we know of it now had it not been for those boys, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

After watching the tearjerker film (I should have brought some tissues) I headed outside to the cemetery. Upon first sight of the thousands of white crosses, I was blown away and really could not muster any words. Looking down at the now very peaceful beach below, where so much death and carnage had occurred 65 years prior, I looked back to the thousands of lives that had been cut too short and were laying in the ground beneath me. The sight and emotional impact of this all was almost too much for me to bear. I wandered between the hundreds of rows for quite some time, looking at the names and each of the soldier's hometown states, wondering what all of these men might have become had they not faced the unimaginable terror during the last days of their short lives. It was definitely a very powerful and grounding experience, to step foot on the same shores and bluffs of the soldiers I had learned so much about throughout school and later through the many movies that had been made to capture the level of heroics that these men had. I was sad, yet I was also so thankful, knowing that their deaths were not in vain, and that I and so many other millions of people around this globe appreciate the ultimate level of sacrifice they paid so that life could go on for the rest of us.

Theoretically, in a very indirect way, those men have allowed us the freedom and flexibility to be able to travel to France and so many other countries throughout Europe. Everyone should be so appreciative of those soldier's selflessness and bravery, for life would have been very different had they not fought and won that courageous fight.

Beautiful reflecting pool at the cemetery. 

From the very emotional experience at the cemetery, I left with a heavy heart and drove down to Omaha Beach, which is located in the small town of Vierville-sur-mer. As I walked towards the beach, I noticed that like Gold Beach back in Arromanches, it was also filled with lots of French beach-goers. I walked towards the right for awhile, until I was directly below the American cemetery. From this perspective, I could fully appreciate the level of difficulty the soldiers who landed at the beach had to face when they ran off of the flat-bottomed boats that brought them to shore. The beach was massive and extremely wide, and those boys had to run quite a long distance while trying to seek cover as they attempted to dodge thousands of live-threatening bullets that were flying through the air. I cannot begin to imagine the utter and mass confusion that played out that day on the sandy shores of the beautiful beach. As I looked around me, I had to really force myself to imagine the horror that fateful day, when 1,200 Americans died on that beach the first day alone. It was quite difficult to switch the image in my mind as the beaches during my visit were filled with happy and smiling people whom were obviously glad to be alive. I was filled with a juxtapose of emotions that were so completely opposite from one another; difficult to swallow and even more complicated when I attempted to understand.
Wide and expansive Omaha Beach.
French beach-goers at Omaha Beach.
Monument on Omaha Beach.
Monument on Omaha Beach.
American flag on Omaha Beach.

From Omaha Beach, I drove to Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument, which was the site where the United States Army Ranger Assault Group landed during D-Day. It was at this cliff side location where the Germans' most heavily fortified position stood along the entire coast. In order to be successful at winning the war, the Allies knew that they would have to secure this spot, so 300 US Army Rangers were chosen to get the job done. The Rangers used hooks and ladders that had been borrowed from various Fire Departments back in London in order to ascend the cliffs. Unfortunately, only one-third of those Army Rangers survived the assault, as this area was the most heavily-bombed during the D-Day landings. As a result of the bombings, the landscape jutting out from the cliffs are permanently scarred with massive craters created by the impact of the bombs.

Looking down onto the water below the tall cliffs, I could not imagine how difficult it must have been for those men to even make it up the cliff, let alone survive once they reached the top. It was so strange and yet surreal to see those huge craters in the ground; I had never seen anything like that before and it's visual impact was tremendous. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time capturing the site with my camera, but I will assure you that many of the holes were large enough to hold several dozen men, sitting or standing.

My last stop of the day prior to heading back to Bayeux was the La Cambe German War Cemetery. This cemetery is the final resting place of more than 21,000 German soldiers, sailors and airmen. Immediately upon entrance to this sight, it was painfully obvious that the mood was quite different than that of the nearby American cemetery. Instead of gleaming white grave markers for every single soldier, there was instead dark black crosses placed sporadically in groups of five with two graves per simple marker. The atmosphere was sad and somber; while some might automatically jump to conclusions and proclaim that this is entirely appropriate, I thought a little different. Anyone with a level head knows that not all of those German soldiers agreed with the cause or the fight. And even if they did, it wasn't as though the lowly-ranked soldiers had an understanding of exactly what was going on, nor the decisions being made by those at the top, or even what they were truly fighting for. At the end of the day, they were all young men who were fighting for a cause that they were told they must believe in. And, regardless of the side the dead came from, everyone should be able to recognize that the loss of any life, especially a young one, is a very sad and heartbreaking reality.

Once back in Bayeux, I strolled the streets for over one hour until I was finally able to settle on a place for dinner. After my disappointing meal experience the night before, I was insistent on finding a better restaurant, but that was no easy chore. After conferring with the menu, I reluctantly decided to eat at a place called La Fringale. The reluctance came from the fact that the restaurant had an English menu posted, which is usually not a good sign. I ordered French onion soup for an appetizer and the pork fillet with a cider cream sauce and vegetables for the main course. While the food was definitely a step above from the night before, it was still slightly disappointing. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to have a decent meal outside of Paris. I was completely perplexed because I had never had a bad meal in Paris, so had always assumed that I would be able to find food of the same quality and price outside of the capital. So far, I had been proved wrong, but I was hoping things would change sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it was going to be a very long four and a half weeks!

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