Before we arrived at the First World War battlefields, our trip actually started with a stay in Normandy, where on its beaches during World War II the greatest amphibious landing in history took place on June 6, 1944. My husband and I had gone to Normandy for five days twelve years ago for his 60th birthday. On that trip, one of our most memorable, we stayed at the Chateau du Sully, situated between Bayeux and the D-Day landing beaches. We had not hired a guide 12 years ago, just visited the various beaches and sites on our own: Honfleur, Utah and Omaha Beaches, Aramanches, Pointe du Hoc where the troops struggled to make their way up the iconic cliffs and sealed their place in history, the American cemetery and its museum, the Roosevelt Cafe on Utah Beach and its radio room used by the GI’s as a communications bunker (all their equipment is still there as it was), and, then took an unrelated side trip to see the Bayeux tapestry.
Since our son and daughter in law had not yet been there, Normandy was added to the itinerary of this current trip, an easy drive from our arrival point in Paris. Easy, that is, except for the fact that their flight was cancelled in Chicago and they had to wait until the next day to catch another flight to France. We had our Normandy guide set up for the second day of our stay. Unfortunately, our son and his family missed that day. We took the tour with the guide because we could not reschedule for the following day. My husband has studied quite a bit about the Allied Landing and the invasion. In addition to his knowledge, my husband also took copious notes when we were with the guide which he could then impart to our son and his family.
The valor, tragedy and drama of D-Day have been well documented in classrooms, on film, in books. The challenge: The Allied troops were charged to pry Western Europe from Hitler’s grip and free the occupied nations. The troops had a clear mission and were committed to seeing it through. Even today, when one says that a relative landed on the beaches at Normandy, it evokes an immediate sense of courage, reverence and honor for that individual and the event in which he had participated. The people of France and more specifically Normandy, living with the aftermath, the sites, and among the remnants of that fateful time, remain aware of the magnitude of what occurred. Twelve years ago when we visited, we heard the story of an old man who was a boy in Bayeux during that war, encountering a visiting American. The old man handed the visitor a brochure about the site they were about to see. The American thanked the old man for the brochure. But the old man said, “No, thank YOU!” to the visitor who represented the Allied forces that ensured his country would be liberated from tyranny.
What struck me this time was the fact that Omaha Beach is now considered a recreational beach. I was somewhat taken aback by that. Would we make Gettysburg recreational? My mind scrolls back to the newsreels, the books I’ve read, the movies I’d seen about the horror of the invasion. It’s not hyberbole to see this as hallowed ground, that civilization was saved on these beaches. To me, it’s sacred. As I looked around, though, I became aware that if this is a recreational beach, it was a solemn recreation. No beach blankets or neon colored umbrellas dotted the landscape the day we visited. Small numbers of people quietly walked the beaches, or stared out at the surf, possibly envisioning the terrified boys scrambling out of their landing craft to face the enemy, their crossfire and, very possibly, death 75 years ago. I was reminded by my family that time moves on, and it is a beach after all, and that it was probably OK, possibly even part of what the troops fought for, that kids fly kites here, that maybe families swim here.
I was overcome the first time I saw the massive panoramic view of the white crosses and Stars of David blanketing that hallowed ground in the American Cemetery.
This current visit was no different. The scars on the earth from the artillery are still visible. Since this year is the 75th anniversary of the beach landings which essentially ended in Germany’s defeat and foreshadowed the ultimate end of World War II, it was still gratifying that the French people recognized and honored America and its allies for ending the German occupation. Throughout this stay in the Normandy area, we saw the American flag being flown alongside the French flag. We saw store and restaurant windows decorated with messages of thanks. It was heartwarming to see that the enormous sacrifice of “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” and the solemnity and significance of what happened there had not been forgotten.
In addition to the beaches, we had gone to Bayeux on that first trip to see the Tapestry but didn’t spend any time roaming the town itself. This time, Bayeux was our first stop and our base for our visit to the Norman coast. We stayed for three days. Bayeux was the first town liberated after D-Day. As we explored the town in our brief time there, my daughter in law and I were both enchanted. She characterized it as simply one of the most charming towns we saw on the entire trip. Yes, some stores down certain streets are dedicated to selling kitschy souvenirs and tee shirts. They also sold sweatshirts (of course emblazoned with “Bayeux” on the front) which were a blessing to me since, although there had been an unprecedented heat wave in Paris, it was pretty chilly by the time we got to Northern France at the end of July and early August.
In Bayeux, the incredible Bayeux Tapestry was a must see again for my husband and me, and a first time visit for our son and his family. The Tapestry, measuring twenty inches high and almost 230 feet in length, depicts through meticulously embroidered linen the struggle for the throne of England between William, the Duke of Normandy, and Harold, the Earl of Wessex in 1066. The details down to the tiniest facial expressions captured by the artisans a thousand years ago are truly something to be seen.
Our Normandy guide asked us if we had seen the cathedral, called The Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux. We said that yes, our hotel was just down the street from the cathedral. “And you saw the light show?” he asked. “I think we did; we saw the church lit up at night,” I responded. “But did you go into the courtyard for the actual light show on the trunk of the tree?” No, we had not seen that.
So that evening, we first took in a Vivaldi concert inside the cathedral. Following the concert, we joined an ever increasing crowd in the courtyard outside the church. What we found was an enormous tree, called The Tree of Liberty, whose branches extend over the entire large courtyard. It was planted over 220 years ago during the French Revolution.
When it was sufficiently dark, the show began. There, on the trunk of the tree were moving lights, symbols, music and dialogue sequences depicting various aspects of freedom.
Such disparate events as the Allied Landing, the liberation of women, the French Revolution, the visage and quotes of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama and a montage of the 1967 Summer of Love shown against the backdrop of the anthem of the time: “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” The show was so enthralling and seamless that we and everyone else who was there stood for the better part of an hour and a half, rarely taking our eyes off the massive tree trunk. It was beautiful, thrilling, emotional, all in all spectacular! And so unexpected!
Twelve years ago when we went to Normandy I came back with the impression that the French countryside looked exactly as I expected it to look. Stone walls, lovely little cottages with flowered window boxes, large agricultural fields, growing produce and housing cattle of various kinds.
I had guessed to our guide this trip that tourism was the paramount industry in this part of France. He said actually both agriculture and tourism were primary. And as you see the productive fields, the prevalence of agriculture becomes apparent as you drive around on the narrow roadways. A stroll around Bayeux also showed us a perfect tableau of French breads, people casually munching their baguettes, and a gorgeous, gigantic rainbow.
All in all, Bayeux was a lovely surprise to us, a respite from the reminders of war.