My mom and aunt really wanted to go to Normandy. It wasn’t really a “must” for me, but I thought that, at the very least, it would be interesting. It turned out to be so much more than that.
Being a child of the 70s, I really have no idea what living through a world war is like, and I hope I never find out. Sure, you hear about the courage and the sacrifices of the soldiers, what they went through, about storming the beaches at Normandy. We watch movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and the series “Band of Brothers” (aside: I love Tom Hanks. End of aside.) and we think we might have a pretty good idea of what it was like. But let me tell you – we don’t.
I’m not suggesting that just visiting these places almost 70 years later can show you what it was really like, but it sure did open my eyes. Standing in a German-built casement (gun pit), seeing craters that bombs left in the earth, standing on Omaha Beach and looking at the immensity of the cliffs, the wide open-ness of the beaches those brave soldiers had to cross and imagining the fear they must have felt…words fail you. The things – the stupid, silly things – we complain about on a daily basis, just seem so damn small.
We took an organized day trip to Normandy with a company called Paris Tours and they were excellent. Our guide, Lionel, picked us up at our apartment in a small van (there were eight people on the tour, including us). He was right on time, the van was clean and air-conditioned, and Lionel himself was wonderful. Normandy is about a 3 hour drive from Paris, and we stopped once along the way for a bathroom/refreshment break. It was an easy trip that Lionel kept interesting with facts, anecdotes and his family’s own personal connection to World War II. Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, which overlooks the English Channel. It was occupied by German soldiers, but United States Army Rangers scaled the cliffs (!!!!) and captured it on June 6, 1944. There is one casement that you are still able to go inside and see the actual viewpoint the German soldiers had:
In the picture above, you can see the holes in the earth from where the bombs were dropped.
Next, we traveled further on to Omaha Beach and spent about 20 minutes walking around and trying to imagine things from the soldiers’ point of view (impossible!). Below are photos of the memorial on Omaha Beach as well as a view of the cliffs.
Next was a quick stop in Arromanches. The beach here was a landing place, but the allied forces also used this area to build an artificial port in which to unload heavy equipment. Some remains of the port still exist:
After Arromanches, we went to the American Cemetery. There is really nothing that I can say about this breathtaking place, except that – even standing there – it is impossible to comprehend the number of soldiers that are laid to rest there. There are over 9,000 heroes in their final resting places, and the white marble crosses and Stars of David simply seem to go on forever.
The last stop on the trip was to the Caen Peace Museum. It’s not very large, but is filled with artifacts and pictures. There is also a pretty good sized gift shop, cafeteria and bathrooms. Being at the end of a very long and emotional day, we probably didn’t get as much out of this as we should have, but it’s definitely worthwhile.
A couple of months after we got back from this trip, near the anniversary of D Day, there was a special on TV about Normandy and the events that took place there. They talked to several surviving soldiers who shared their stories…and it was incredibly moving and informative. I really wish I had seen that program before I visited Normandy, because I felt like I would have gotten even more out of my visit. So that is my recommendation to you if you are planning to go – which I highly suggest that you do.
I’ll end this rather somber post on a lighter note. On the drive back to Paris, our tour guide took a call on his cell phone. This was NOT a good idea, and the end result was this: