Normandy – long, low dunes of the Landing Beaches, fascinating museums, cemeteries and memorials can all be found in this area of Northern France. Here, you will find rolling countryside, grazing dairy cattle herds and apple orchards. Normandy butter, cheese and cream, all highly rated, as are fish and seafood and not of course, forgetting the calvados.
Along with family, we were invited to stay in a house on Utah beach and see for ourselves some of the areas associated with the D-Day Landings. As a woman, I thought maybe I wouldn’t find it very interesting! However, I was surprised to find how absorbing and engaging it was, bringing home the realities of how so many suffered and died for liberation and freedom.
We travelled by ferry from Portsmouth to Caen which took about 6 hours, The trip was calm with smooth waters and a lovely blue sky. At the other end we disembarked with the car relatively easily, although there was a little delay before clearing Caen and onto the motorway.
Arriving at Utah Beach, we drove down a sandy, rather unkempt lane until we reached the rental house overlooking the dunes and beach. From the outside, the accommodation was not very inspiring, but was quite well equipped with room for 10 people. Our bedroom was on the ground floor which backed out onto the concrete car parking area. We did have a problem with the shower, but this was rectified by the owners – an English couple who lived nearby.
The living and dining area was upstairs along with 2 more bedrooms. The dining area was bright and light and you could look out towards the sea – even better if you could snip down some of the dunes!
In the evening we walked on the beach, and although walking down the dunes was fairly easy, climbing back up was another story! I thought of those poor soldiers, laden down with equipment having to scale up them as fast as they could.
On our first day we visited Arrowmanches (Gold Beach) which overlooks the remains of the artificial Mulberry port built by the allies. The principles of Mulberries was to land vehicles and supplies very rapidly by using quays protected by a line of concrete caissons, until such times as the continental ports were captured. In 100 days, 220,000 soldiers, 530,000 tonnes of supplies and 39,000 vehicles were landed at Port Winston.
There is an indoor and outdoor museum on the cliff tops and guided tours are available. Car parking is no problem.
Projected in high definition, we visited the 360 degree circular cinema with nine screens where you are bombarded with images from all sides. Clips take you through the 100 days of the Battle of Normandy to liberate the region before the Allies moved on to free the rest of Europe from Nazi occupation. I tell you, this is an experience in itself as you feel yourself standing in the midst of bombing, planes flying all around, injured soldiers being dragged from the water onto the beach as they fight their way from the landing craft. People, clutching hold of children fleeing from demolished houses as the terrors of war surrounded them.
After the film we looked around the museum collections and finally the shop where you can purchase videos, books and souvenirs.
There is a colourful shuttle train which you can use to take you downhill into the town, but we decided to walk. It is a tourist spot with a wonderful golden, sandy beach. We stopped for a coffee outside a hotel, which proved to be very expensive. I guess we were paying for the view over the beach!!
The following day we paid a visit to the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer which opened in 2007 and overlooks Omaha Beach.
It covers 70 hectares, containing laser precisioned, Lasa marble headstones on the graves of 9,387 men and women. Some have Latin crosses and some the ‘stars of David.’ A central mall bisects the cemetery’s ten grave plots with shrubs and roses planted close by.
It also has ‘Walls of the Missing’, in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial where 1,557 names are inscribed. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. The memorial in the centre holds a bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves”.
The Visitor Centre pays tribute to the values and sacrifices of the liberators. Here, Operation OverLord is put into its historical context. Before entering the Museum, security is observed before being allowed to pass through, and exit into the cemetery itself.
Walking through the graves is a reminder of just how many gave up their lives for freedom. I remember a quote from a US war correspondent in the museum who wrote, ”The men around me lay motionless. Only the dead on the waterline rolled with the waves.” Words that instantly gave you a vivid scene in your head.
Travelling on, we stopped off at a wayside café called La Tivoli for a sandwich and drink. It was the longest sandwich I have ever had to wait for. I could have made enough to feed a couple of dozen people during the time we waited. It finally came in a baguette and didn’t taste too bad, although the others were not very complimentary about theirs!
Pointe du Hoc was the next stop with its promontory and 100 foot cliff – the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach and where the United States Army Ranger Assault Group scaled the cliffs to seize the German artillery pieces that could have fired on the troops landing on the nearby beaches.
After parking the car we set out, having to stay on the designated walking path because the site has remained more or less unchanged since 1944 and there was a risk of personal injury. Large bomb craters and uneven ground fill much of the battle scarred area.
On the outermost edge of the cliff, the Germans had an elaborate outpost from where they had a perfect view. Six 155mm cannons had been in heavily reinforced concrete bunkers. Before D-Day, US and English heavy bombers had repeatedly plastered the area. Altogether, this place was hit by high explosives, the equivalent of the explosive power of the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima.
It was like walking round a lunar landscape full of craters. When the Rangers got there however, they found the artillery had been moved and huge wooden beams had been placed in the stations where the guns had been.
A great mystery surrounded the ‘Missing Guns.’ Pointe du Hoc was considered to be, in Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower words, “the most important target in the whole invasion area”… so why wasn’t intelligence information available at the time? A list of theories ensued as to their whereabouts. A recent TV programme gave an interesting documentary about this place. This is worth delving into further and I believe there is a book entitled ‘The Cover Up At Omaha Beach,’ which I imagine would be an interesting read.
We had hoped to see the Bayeux Tapestry the following day, but this was not to be. It rained very heavily and after seeing the length of the queue waiting, we decided to go into the Cathedral instead, which had an exhibition of St Theresa of Liseux.
The Norman-Romanesque Cathedral named Notre Dame, was consecrated in 1077, and stands on an ancient site once occupied by Roman sanctuaries. It was rebuilt in Gothic style in the 13th century having suffered fire damage in the previous century. It has some beautiful stained glass windows and it is worth going down into the crypt where you will find decorated frescoes of angels playing musical instruments.
In order to glean more information of D-Day, we decided to collect an ‘Open Sky’ GPS visio-guide device from the tourist office in St Eglise. This provides you with ’10 key sites’, giving you time to discover at your own pace. It leads you towards strategic and little known points of interest within a 50 km sector. It takes a while to get around, but is well worth doing.
Point 3 on the route was the capturing the La Fiere Causeway, a place with individual stories of heroism and faint-heartedness. Here, confusion, misjudgement and errors were involved, but it still showed human strength and frailty in all its diversity.
Imagine 12 M4 Sherman tanks, lined up on a ridge behind the soldiers, bombarding the opposite shore of the little Merderet River where German troops had taken up defensive positions at the end of a 500-yard causeway which was the only means of crossing the flooded plain and offered no cover on the causeway. As soldiers started to cross the bridge the Germans opened fire with mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire. Soldiers fell in heavy numbers, some rolled into the river and drowned. A directive was given that the bridge had to be held at all cost until the men from the beach arrived. It took four days to capture and secure the causeway and the casualties were massive.
I walked along the banks looking at the bridge, and thinking about all the lives lost there over 70 years ago.
Each of the 10 key sites had their story to tell.
A trip to Mont Saint-Michel the next day had to be cancelled due to another rainy day! However, we did manage to find a few places not so far way including the abbey Notre Dame-de-Grace, founded in 1824 and still housing a community of Cistercian Monks, subsisting on cow and pig farming. They have a little monastery shop where they sell ‘la trappe de Bricquebec’ cheeses. Sadly it didn’t open til 2pm so we weren’t able to buy anything!
A short distance from here is the town of Briquebec with it’s 12th century castle. It is said that it’s ramparts, towers and eleven-sided dungeon offers the most interesting and imposing example of medieval architecture in the Cotentin. It was the residence of the lords of Briquebec from the Viking ages to the French revolution. Today, there is a museum and hotel-restaurant on site.
At lunchtime we arrived at Carteret from where you can see superb views of the Ecrehous reefs and the island of Jersey. When you go to the semaphore you see the dunes of Hatainville, rising 60 metres above the sea. Between the capes and dunes lies the ruins of an old church dedicated to Saint Germain-le-scot, who brought Christianity to Cotentin in the 5th century.
After a walk through some interesting shops in the port area, we suddenly had to run and find a restaurant as the rain returned!
On the return trip to our holiday rental house at Utah Beach we stopped in to visit La Maison du Biscuit at Sortosville-en-Beaumont. This is a store like no other I have ever visited! Outside, the street decoration appears is in the former 1900’s pre-war style and its boutiques certainly have an old world charm. It gives the impression from outside that it is a small row of shops closely knit together with yesteryear façades!
As soon as we entered, we were offered a sample of scrumptious biscuits, obviously to tempt us to buy! Continuing a family tradition since 1903, the owners are keen to uphold their key factors of freshness and quality, with their flour and eggs coming from Normandy. Where more exotic flavours are used, they are chosen from some of the world’s best places.
Your taste buds are certainly awakened! Scents of hot chocolate, ground almonds, caramel … all going into pure butter home-made cookies. Apart from biscuits, you can rediscover objects from a different era which seem to ignite a magic of the senses. A good selection of wines are also on display as well as a fabulous delicatessen. So much to see, so much temptation. Time perhaps to visit the tearoom where an automaton pianist tinkles out musical notes while you tuck into tea and cookies.
I thought afterwards that it would be worth considering crossing the channel to do your Christmas Shopping here!
Despite the weather it hadn’t prevented us from taking in as much as possible from this area of Normandy and we planned to spend time in La Cite de la Mer in Cherbourg before catching the ferry back home.
This is a place not to be missed and we paid 18 Euros each to visit the ‘whole experience.’
We started off on an underwater expedition in a building which was virtually digitised. After travelling through various rooms including ‘training exercises’ in which we had to ‘prepare for the deep, we had to stop and look into a camera before ending up in a room where you experience being in a capsule and disappearing into the depths – being lurched around under water! There is a twist in this tale at the end, but I won’t spoil it for those who may consider this adventure!
We then boarded the ‘Redoutable’,- the first French SNLE Device Launching Nuclear Submarine of the French Navy. Now a museum, this is the largest submarine in the world open to the public. She was commissioned on 1 December 1971, and initially fitted with 16 M1 MSBS submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In 1974, she was refitted with the M2 missile, then later, the M20.
What an experience this was…not like the small submarine in Gosport I visited some years back! Audios are available while you walk around.
Then came the Titanic Exhibition, housed in the Art Deco ferry terminal building and where you enter through the old customs hall. Cherbourg was the last European stop over for this, the world’s biggest liner and where 281 passengers disembarked. Some areas which were unopened to the public, now include the large and impressive baggage room, housing exhibitions. Slide shows, films and portraits/pictures take you back in time surrounding the Titanic. It is difficult to imagine that 5 days before she sank on 5th April 1912, she was in Cherbourg.
Our final visit here was to the cylindrical aquarium, 8 metres wide and 10 metres high. This displays colourful marine life forms according to the depth. You can stand for ages just gazing in fascination at all the various fish.
Normandy, a battleground throughout history, from the Viking raids to the D-Day landings.
Cultural heritage and time forgotten villages who now have hotels and restaurants . Visitors come from afar and leave with memories of where the sea did roar in June 44 – where men fought and died in war, and for whom we must remember with Pride.
Now, I understand a little better, a letter my Dad wrote while at war:
“How many people think of the good times they have spent with friends and relations or loved ones. Of times they may have treasured on holidays or walking through the wonderful English countryside in the warm summer months. To days beneath the blue skies of peace and summer evenings when one could walk below a starlit heaven without the shadows of war creeping about us by day and by night.
One day, people will once again enjoy the beautiful things which God gave mankind. But many of us may never know in this world the good days ahead, which mean peace one again. And God be with those who do, for the good things in life.”