A Weekend in Normandy

If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there…. then Normandy is the place for you! And if you’re a bit of a history buff like my husband then there’s so much to see, do and experience. there’s definitely something for everyone, not to mention the abundance of crepes and ALL the cider.

We took the train from Paris Saint Lazare just after 10am last Friday morning and arrived in Bayeux at around 12.30pm. Our B&B was only a short walk from the train station, along the side of the road we saw loads and loads of apple trees and the ground beneath them was just covered in juicy, ripe apples that had fallen. If you didn’t know Normandy is famous for apples and calvados which is an apple brandy and is 40% alcohol, so like a whisky or something like that.

 

After checking into our lovely B&B and dropping the backpacks off we decided to see some of Bayeux starting with a glimpse of the Cathedral, on our way to see the Bayeux Tapestry.IMG_8429

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the battle of Hastings in 1066 between England & France, William the Conqueror and Harold the 2nd (spoiler alert – Harold gets an arrow through the eye and dies, England gets it’s first Norman King on the throne). It was so bizarre seeing a tapestry that has lasted for almost a thousand years, something I vividly remember my primary school teacher telling me about as I sat on the mat in the library drinking my bottle of milk. The colours on the tapestry itself are still so vibrant. You get a little audio guide that walks you around (almost 70 metres) and describes scene by scene the incidents leading up to the betrayal of William the Conqueror by Harold the 2nd and how  Harold came to his very bloody end.  Although I will admit we were like giggling little schoolgirls at some parts of the tapestry because of the nudey men and women, it’s funny how with all the different styles of art that have come and gone, the way we draw (or sew even) a man’s penis has not changed in a millennia!!

We then wandered more through Bayeux and passed some very cute, chocolate box tearooms and souvenir shops.

Bayeux is also famous for being the first town that was liberated in France by British Troops on 7th June 1944 after the D-Day landings on 6th June 1944. Because of it’s proximity to the landing beaches and had escaped being bombarded, it became a hub for soldiers and citizens alike. It was also where General Charles de Gaulle made his first speech in France on 14th June 1944. IMG_8326

There is a great museum that describes the Battle of Normandy in such detail, and you get to take a glimpse of what life was like as a soldier on those monumentally historic days that really turned the tides of WWII.  Just across the road from the museum there is a British military cemetery.

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On Saturday we had a tour booked to take us to the American Beaches of the D-Day landing (Utah and Omaha) as well as the American Cemetery.  The tour started with a trip to the church of Sainte Mère Eglise and it was in this little town where a lot of paratroopers were dropped. One of whom was a paratrooper called John Steele who got his parachute caught on the church steeple and had to play dead for over two hours before finally being able to cut himself down, and in doing so broke his ankle.

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From here it was a short ride in the van to Utah Beach & Visitors Centre. The visitors centre holds one of the only four remaining B-26 bombers (think of the film Memphis Belle with Matthew Modine and Harry Connick. Jr – such hotties!). Funding to secure the centre came from a family called the Dewhirsts who had gone to visit the much smaller museum on the same site and recognised their Dad in one of the photos and discovered he had been a B-26 pilot and played a pivotal role in the Battle for Normandy. One of the brothers just also happened to be a millionaire and donated over a million dollars to the visitor centre, which helped them acquire the B-26 and to upgrade the centre to what you see today.

Standing on such a beautiful beach in bright sunshine, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face and seeing prize-winning Arabic horses being trained on the sand, seeing the birds swooping down, it was just so hard to believe that anything like the D-Day landings could have happened here.

The next stop was Pointe du Hoc which is a piece of high ground that overlooks both Utah Beach and Omaha Beach which was used by the German’s to protect both beaches. To allow the American soldiers to land safely here on 6th June, the day before The American Rangers had to scale 100 foot cliffs to secure this ground. In 1984 on the 40th anniversary of the landings President Regan gave a speech here. From here we then progressed to Arromanche which is another gorgeous little seaside town where we had lunch.

We arrived at the American Cemetery just before 4pm in time for the flag and taps ceremony where the flag is lowered from the mast and then folded into a triangle whilst the bugle plays. By the time we got there the sun was just starting to get lower in the sky and quite a big crowd had gathered, but we still managed to get a good spot on the grass to see and hear what was going on. For me, this was the most emotional part of the day. Obviously the whole day is quite overwhelming as you’re learning of the difficulties that both soldiers and civilians had to overcome to survive, and, of course so many didn’t. As the flag started to lower and then the music started I was really overcome with emotion and all I could think to myself was ‘DO NOT CRY – THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS’ but it was too late the tears had already started to roll down my face (I’m getting teary just writing this!). My next thoughts were ‘Ok you’re crying just go with it but DO NOT SNORT OR GULP OR MAKE A SOUND AND DRAW ATTENTION TO YOURSELF!’ I just about managed it!

This is going to sound really stupid but The American Cemetery was such a beautiful and serene place overlooking one of the most gorgeous beaches I had ever seen and then realised it was actually Omaha Beach which was the last stop on the tour. As we got down to the beach we were able to catch the last of that day’s beautiful sunshine. There was families with their dogs running around, young couples in bikinis and shorts jumping in the sea and splashing in the waves, young and old taking a stroll. For this to be happening today was all thanks to the many men who fought and the women who took over the traditional ‘men’s jobs’ to keep the country going, to feed the soldiers and the general population. Without their inspirational efforts we would not have the freedoms we have today that we take for granted without a second’s thought – I salute them all!

For info on where we stayed and the tour we took check out the links below:

http://www.hotel-chambres-hotes-bayeux-lecastel.fr/

https://www.viator.com/Bayeux-tourism/D-Day-Beaches-and-Battlefields-Tours-in-Normandy/d909-t1633

 

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