Visiting Normandy

After a month of solitude in a tiny village near La Manche, I finally broke out for three weeks, starting with two days in Paris when my brother came to visit France for the first time at the end of March. But it was our trip to Normandy, a site I've longed to visit for some time now, that I was looking forward to the most.

My brother and I boarded the train to Bayeux in Basse-Normandie (lower Normandy) from Paris' Gare St.-Lazare. Despite it being a local train (and not TGV), it was only a two-hour long ride as there was only one stop (Caen) in between Paris and our destination. And it didn't take long to notice the sharp differences in landscape and terrain in Normandy than that of Nord-Pas de Calais, which was surprising since it's only a few hours away by car.

By 8PM, it was already dusk and there wasn't anyone else really on the platform when I we disembarked in Bayeux. Yet, with two platforms and electronic screens, I knew this town was already a step above Montreuil-Sur-Mer. After about a 10 minute walk from the station to the town, we found our quaint and uniquely named hotel, Le Bayeux. At first, it looked like we were the only occupants in the hotel, given that all the room doors were open, revealing neatly made but empty rooms. Being in the countryside, this was a little spooky. But by the time we returned from dinner, there were several dozen English teenage boys causing a ruckus in the halls while in Normandy for a class trip.

Our main objective was to visit the beaches invaded on June 6, 1944. However, I failed to realize that spring (even early spring) might be a busy time, and I didn't secure tickets in advance. So when we called to see what was available that morning, none of the tours had open seats. We ended up settling on reserving two spots on a full day-tour the following day, which in hindsight was the best plan possible.

But first, we spent the day (which was half rainy, half sunny) touring Bayeux, notably with a visit to the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie (the Museum of the Battle of Normandy). The museum was quite well done, laying out all of the information clearly, both chronologically and by subject. It was informative, but not an overload. It was also one of the first spots where I began to notice the presence of more American tourists, some of whom I can pick out in Paris, but I hardly ever see in Northern France.

One of the aspects of visiting Normandy is sampling Norman cuisine. While we tried another restaurant or two, my brother and I ended up eating dinner at the same place for three nights in a row because it was just so delicious and had something that most other French restaurants don't have: good and attentive customer service. L'Assiette Normande (The Norman Plate) is located just opposite the gorgeous Gothic cathedral (pictured above).

Dishes incorporating camembert were obvious selections being that the smelly (but yummy) cheese hails from Normandy. My two favorite dishes were a tie between the tartiflette and the Norman salad, the latter being one of the few dishes I've found in France that includes corn. The waitress obviously remembered us, as on our third and final night in Normandy, we were treated with a few complimentary glasses of crément.

But it was our last full day in Normandy that was action-packed. Huddled into a mini-van seating nine, the Battlebus tour commenced at 8:30 AM, led by our very-knowledgeable and personable British guide, Dale. There were three groups of nine initially at the starting point, and it was broken down into two groups of Americans and a third group of Canadians. Our tour focused on most of the American-related points of interest before, on and after D-Day. 85€ per person might have seemed a lot to ask for a day tour, but in the end, it was worth every penny.

The first stop was a small church (in a tiny town of which I have forgotten the name and should have written down) that was used as a makeshift triage center/hospital on D-Day, staffed by only two American soldiers - both of whom survived the war. The church was more like the size of a chapel, and it was literally covered from wall to wall with injured soldiers, incidentally from both sides. But the church is kept up today solely by the funds of the local residents, including several expensive stained glass windows that were commissioned to commemorate the heroics of the Allies in liberating this village.

Stop two was in a larger town named Sainte-Mère-Église. The events of this town have been depicted in the film, The Longest Day. Being that I haven't seen the film yet, hearing the story for the first time myself from the guide was quite exciting. It's almost too bizarre to be true. In the wee hours of June 6, American paratroopers began landing in Basse-Normandie, farther inland from Utah Beach, some of whom landed in Sainte-Mère-Église. Unfortunately, at the exact same time, a house had caught on fire in the center of the village, drawing the attention of the town mayor, most of the residents and the German soldiers occupying the village. Upon seeing these paratroopers, the Germans opened fire, but a few managed to survive - one of whom had a parachute caught on the church steeple.

Just before lunch, we stopped at the first of the two beaches invaded by the Americans. The Allies took over a total of five beaches on D-Day, with the British at Sword and Gold, the Canadians at Juno and the Americans at Utah and Omaha beaches. While the pictures may look like it was a lovely day, it was brutally windy - so sharp that it could cut your face. I only pulled my scarf down from over my head and face to take the photo below. The guide remarked that I looked like a ninja. He also remarked that the weather on the day of our tour was similar to that of the climate on June 6, 1944. That would be sunny with mixed clouds, but very windy and a temperature around 7-8 degrees Celsius. I can't imagine doing much outdoors in that weather, let alone fighting in one of the greatest battles in world history.

After lunch in a local canteen owned by an English family, the next big stop was at Pointe du Hoc, a cliff top bombed repeatedly before D-Day by the Allies. It looked like the moon.

Omaha Beach was the second to last stop. What surprised me about Omaha Beach (and even Pointe du Hoc) is how these sites are depicted in films versus how they actually look. These are many steep cliffs, reminiscent of coastlines in California more so than two hours north in Pas de Calais where the coastline is pretty much flat.

But these beaches do not feel like anywhere you'd visit for some leisure time during the summer months. They are solemn, and you can instantly feel the heavy weight what took place on these sands just 66 years ago.

And only a kilometer or so away, you can instantly see just how much these soldiers sacrificed for their country and for the liberation of Europe. The American Cemetery in Normandy is the third military cemetery I've visited (after Manila and Arlington), and it struck me instantly how much this place looked like the other two. It was as if I had been instantly transported to the United States. There was a memorable but haunting scene in Saving Private Ryan that took place in this graveyard, which sparked in my mind while walking past thousands of white crosses. Many of those who died at the Battle of Normandy have actually been repatriated home, but so many still remain buried in France.

There isn't really much one can say or think after visiting this cemetery or even the beaches invaded on that fateful summer day in 1944, except how thankful we should be to those who heroically fought and gave their lives to defend freedom and defeat tyranny.

Basse-Normandie is one of my favorite locations in France that I've visited so far, and I hope to go back and see more in the future.