Our Normandy Adventure: Part III

Day 4

One thing you have to do when in France is to try a French breakfast and make it local.  We headed to the tiny bakery in Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer and were like kids in a sweet shop.  The range was quite astonishing considering its size and also at home we’re just used to 2 options when it comes to a continental breakfast pastry (croissants or pain au chocolat). We picked an apple based pastry and a custard filled one and took these away to consume in our car.  One of the tastiest breakfasts…..if only they were healthy and I’d be eating them every day!

Before Arromanches, we headed a little further on to Longues Sur Mer to see the German battery flanked by the landing beaches and the only artillery battery to have Listed Building status.  You will find four quite in tact gun casemates.  Allow about half an hour for this stop.

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Arromanches has a few memorials to explore but its real draw is the film shown there in its 360 cinema.  By far the most emotional of all and possibly the best of all films seen on our trip to Normandy.  People left the cinema with tears in their eyes and even writing about it now, stirs my emotions.  This 19 minute film showing previously unseen footage projects onto 9 screens in HD and tells the story of the 100 day Battle of Normandy.

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We then headed to Bayeux.  We made our way first of all to the Commonwealth Cemetery which was quite a contrast to the American Cemetery.  All the headstones were very similar and lined up to precision but many contained personal messages from home and they all had flowers planted.  It was not as grand but it felt a little more grounded and peaceful.  This cemetery is home mainly to British servicemen but also has people buried here from New Zealand, Canada and South Africa to name but a few nations; there were also German graves which I found quite touching and which provides such a powerful message.  Again, very different to the American Cemetery and possibly one of my favourite spots on our trip to Normandy.

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We found Le Moulin de la Galette for lunch.  Situated overlooking a river with its own water wheel, this place used to be a mill.  Now it dishes up the friendliest of welcomes, a huge selection of galattes (including a choice for me with several without ham!!), one of the prettiest locations and great home cooked food.

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Feeling very full and having had my fill of cheese, we walked slowly across the road to see the Bayeux Tapestry.  Being entirely honest, I was not too excited about this.  Yes, it’s old and big but would I enjoy it?!  Absolutely!  The museum is well thought out.  You take an audio guide which starts when you reach a certain point and this then guides you through the story being told on the tapestry making it fun and it also set you on a good pace. After seeing the tapestry there is a small museum followed by a 16 minute film.  You learn how it was a miracle the tapestry was still in existence.  It was used as a covering and once almost torn up for a parade.  The tapestry itself is amusing, clever and so well preserved that it’s hard to believe the 70 metre long embroidered cloth is more than 900 years old. Allow around 1.5 hours here and the cost of entry at the time of writing including audio guide was 9 Euros per person.

Afterwards, we spent some time in Bayeaux and with an ice-cream in hand wandered to the cathedral although the outside is far more impressive than the inside.  We had also heard about an organic cider and calvados producer with a shop in Bayeaux run by husband and wife team, Christele and Francois, which we managed to track down. Lecornu is situated west of the cathedral near to a green (Place de Gaulle) and sells calvados, cider, apple juice, calvados jelly and many more wonderful products.

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We were lucky that the weather was so beautiful for exploring Bayeux and then for sitting out in the evening with a glass of wine and nibbles listening to the birds sing and reflecting on what a terrific day we’d had.

Day 5

When we visited Normandy, we visited every beach and related museum and tried to experience as much as possible.  I believe that Utah beach has the best museum.  We only had about 2 hours here to explore and actually could have spent at least another hour here. The museum like all others has a film, accounts from those who fought, objects from the war and it was the only place I recall seeing the German story being told, although this was very brief.  One thing that struck me when listening to the stories of the French who were occupied was in relation to a German solider.  He used to visit them and loved playing with the children. He had white hair, that’s all the family remember, and he said he had children and missed them.  He went missing, presumably died in the war.  Many people didn’t want to be there fighting but felt obliged to and were terrified of the consequences. Utah was an American beach landing and was largely successful although not without its terrible losses.  We didn’t actually see much of the beach, mainly because the weather was poor on the morning we visited.  However, the museum here is wonderful, set on the beach which brings you closer to the history you’re learning about, brimming with accounts I could have listened to all day, with terrific exhibits and there is a walk right at the end above the trenches giving you a silent insight into life at Utah.

When you are at Utah beach, you’re not far from Sainte-Mere-Eglise which is worth a visit for its museum but probably more famously, the statue of the airman hanging from the church spire by his parachute.  When the paratroopers were dropped by the gliders and were dispersed throughout the area, one soldier found himself dangling from the church spire.  A comrade fought off German forces to save his life and was himself killed in action but John Steele played dead and lived to tell the tale.

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The museum, situated just across the road from the church, contains 3 areas all worth a visit.  Allow about an hour and a half to see it all with an entry fee of 8 Euros per person (at the time of writing).  The best part of the museum for me provides you with a tiny insight into what it must have been like in Normandy in 1944, thanks to a hyper-realistic museography.  There is a plane you walk into which is noisy to the point of being quite scary and it’s full of paratroopers ready to parachute into the night.  When you exit, you’re looking down onto the local area from above, you can see the church on fire and lots of parachutes descending.  Then you’re on the beaches and gun shots are being fired.  Making your way forward you’re in the middle of hedgerows avoiding sniper shots. Even though you know it isn’t real, your heart can help but beat a little quicker and your reflexes make you a little lighter on your feet.

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Now home and having reflected on the trip, I realise how quickly pain can be forgotten.  How we move on with our lives at great speed giving little time to let the past help our future.  With the anniversary of D-Day approaching, I hope everyone reading this will take a moment to remember those who gave their lives so we can enjoy the freedoms we have today.

Read Part I and Part II.

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Our Normandy Adventure: Part I

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As I walked along the beach at Omaha, still golden in the low winter sun, watching families building sandcastles and holding the hand of my better half, I could not imagine the horrors that struck this place just 72 years ago.  That’s tangible history and yet it didn’t seem possible watching the scene unfold before me that something so unimaginably terrible had taken place here.  At first I felt bad about the family enjoying their time building sandcastles underneath the sculpture remembering those who’d lost their lives here.  Then I realised that if we weren’t enjoying our time there it would have been for nothing.  They gave their lives so that we could enjoy ours.  This place was once blood, bullets and bodies and now there was love, life and laughter.

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The Normandy beaches should be visited in your lifetime. I think it should be part of every school curriculum to visit these historically key locations, to learn about those who made the greatest sacrifice at all, to learn how it all started, the evil genius that brought this into being, the brutality, the morale, the struggle, the fight, the resourcefulness and why we are here now doing what we are doing.  It’s a part of history we all have in common.

Day 1

We took the ferry over from Poole to Cherbourg early on Monday morning.  We were lucky to have such a lovely sunny day for our sailing and even got to peek at millionaires row at Sandbanks on the way out to sea whilst sailing just past Brownsea Island.  Don’t pin your hopes on the Brittany Ferries‘ breakfast and take a good book with you to keep you occupied!

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We arrived in France at around 2pm and headed straight to Auchan to stock up on French goodies.  We selected several wines with the aim of tasting them before our return journey so we could buy more of what we liked.  Good decision!

For this trip we were reaching back to our childhood memories and decided to stay at the perfectly located Eurocamp Cote de Nacre at Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer about an hour and a half away from Cherbourg.  It was a lovely site tucked away behind residential streets which felt as though we were part of the community.  We took a walk around the site which was really quite quiet in April.  Our holiday home was completely private and had no-one staying immediately next to us which made it nicely secluded.  The grounds were beautifully kept and for those needing the communal washing facilities, we’ve never seen such a modern shower block.

Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer was fairly quiet in April.  The cold windy weather, although sunny, didn’t help much in bringing out the crowds but we were welcomed by the restaurateurs and chose to eat at Cote Sable.  On our first night we enjoyed the local delicacies of Normandy Mussels (mussels in a creamy white sauce) and a ham and cheese galette all washed down with wine and a bowl of cider.  It would have been rude not to have sampled the crepes and so of course we obliged!

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Read Part II and Part III.

Our Normandy Adventure: Part II

Day 2

Feeling refreshed after a great night’s sleep, we set off at around 9am to Caen.  Caen was heavily bombed in the war and was left with just one medieval street remaining although the city does not look as modern as some of the others which rose from the ashes.  Its cathedral, rebuilt after the war, makes a skyline statement and its castle looks rather impressive, reminding me slightly of Cardiff, but without much substance.  A view best appreciated from outside if you’re short on time.

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After a fleeting visit to Caen, we made our way to Pegasus Bridge about 20 minutes away. This had one of the best museums we visited, dedicated to the men of the 6th British Airborne Division.  It was not overwhelming and recounted real stories which I love.  We learned about the gliders that dropped paratroopers into the area before D-Day to try and make a little headway in preparation.  We learned how that particular plan didn’t really work too well and many were dropped in water where they drowned or right into the hands of the German forces and others were scattered all over then left with the task of reuniting with their sections.  The museum is split into an inside and outside section.  Outside, you can see the actual Pegasus Bridge, a glider and learn about the ingenious Bailey Bridge. Allow an hour for this visit and at the time of writing, the entrance fee was 7.50 Euros per person.

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After a quick packed lunch in the car (cheese of course!), we made the 15 minute journey to the Caen Memorial Museum.  You will be able to see the museum from a distance as there’s a large statue outside of the sailor and his sweetheart!  The Museum we found a little overwhelming but certainly worth a visit.  It took just shy of 4 hours to see it and that was without spending too much time in the latter part devoted to the Cold War and Berlin (we’d recently visited Berlin and so just looked around briefly as we’d learned so much there).  There is a lot of detail in this museum and although it flows very well, it is tiring. There is a film here which is well thought out and presents very differently to the others; it appears about three quarters of the way through the museum tour and runs every half an hour.  We had about 20 minutes before the next showing, just enough time to go to the café and grab a coffee and share a raspberry tart.  Once we’d finished the film, we headed outside to see the remembrance garden for the Canadians and Brits which is certainly worth a look.  The British garden was immaculately kept and was very peaceful with us being the only ones there.  If you plan on visiting both this museum and Arromanches 360, be sure to buy the joint ticket costing (at the time of writing) 21.50 Euros per person (saving 3.50 Euros).

Our final stop of the day was Sword beach, one of the British beaches.  There’s no museum here but there are some memorials just off the beach.  We took a very long and blustery walk along its lovely and peaceful promenade.  Be prepared for a long walk!  We seemed to walk forever and we only really scratched the surface.  This gives you an idea of how big this beach is.  The houses that line the front are characterful, pretty, most of them locked up until the summer months arrive. It’s a peaceful place full of joggers, dog walkers and kite surfers!

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After such an exhausting day, we headed back to Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer, our favourite little French town, and settled down to dinner at Le Crabe Vert.  As someone who doesn’t eat a lot of meat, I did find this part of France a bit of a struggle as they love their pork!  I was usually left with mussels, Scottish salmon (odd!) or whelks!  However, this restaurant served up a delicious seafood pizza which I ate a little too eagerly and then finished off with a scrumptious sundae.

Day 3

Our first stop of the day was Pointe du Hoc.  This surprised me as I really didn’t know much about this before arriving.  This is the cliff face scaled by brave American Rangers in the D-Day landings.  The German forces were not overly concerned about this spot as it was almost impossible, in their eyes, that anyone would try to target this spot as it was so hostile.  However, the Rangers did it although only 90 of the 225 were still able to bear arms on 8 June 1944, 2 days after D-Day.  You can visit the spot, see many craters where bombs hit, see the German trenches and gun emplacements and stare out to the raging sea below.  This was a mission impossible and I was in awe of their determination and the success of this operation.  The museum is very small but nicely presented.  There are a few information boards inside, tributes outside and the scene of Pointe du Hoc is left very much in tact.  Allow at least 2 hours to visit this spot (no entrance fee) which is exceptionally memorable.

Omaha is the beach which will stick with me forever.  It was truly the most beautiful of all beaches, long and golden and I would recommend visiting the beach here and taking a walk along the sea front.  There is a small museum although it’s not for everyone.  There’s lots of memorabilia which is great for people who like this sort of thing.  For me, I prefer reading letters, the stories and the real life accounts.  The people are interesting and for me, the objects less so unless of course they have a story attached.  Here, there was mainly just a note about what the objects were and so I found myself whizzing along to a board detailing the stories of several soldiers and then listening to the film at the end which is certainly worth a watch.

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You cannot visit this area without visiting the American Cemetery. If you have ever watched ‘Saving Private Ryan’ this will be familiar to you as it features in the opening and closing scenes.  It is grand and the headstones are positioned to military precision.  They are all very similar with the only difference being that the stones are shaped to the faith of the soldier.  There are also many stones which read, ‘A soldier, known but to God’.  There is no order as such to the stones; the men were not buried by surname, date of death, platoon or battalion, they were buried randomly, side by side.  Even Theodore Roosevelt Jr, the ex-President’s son, is buried amongst his colleagues without a special position.  It’s a very stark picture when you step out and see all of the headstones, all 9,387 of them, and realise this was the tip of the iceberg of the death toll of this Total War.  There is a film to watch inside and so do make the effort to go through the security checks to see it.  It tells the heartbreaking stories of several soldiers and this is what makes it so real.  After the film, head out through the long enclosed corridor whilst the names of those buried at the cemetery are read out.  There is also a board dedicated to the Niland brothers just past this which is worth reading (Saving Private Ryan used this for its inspiration).

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Gold beach is very similar to Sword although the promenade isn’t as pretty. However, this beach does have a museum with the nicest staff.  We arrived with half an hour to go before closing but were welcomed and actually offered a free return visit the next day.  However, half an hour is plenty of time to see this small museum which is split into 2 areas.  The first is dedicated to a plane which crashed in the local area.  It had set off from New York in 1927 and was the first airmail link to France and due to the bad weather on route, had to divert from Paris to Ver-Sur-Mer.  The second part was of most interest to us and tells the story of the British invasion. This section is relatively small, but perfectly formed, and so half an hour is sufficient.

We were staying in Cote de Nacre and were about a 10 minute walk from the beach which forms part of Juno beach where the Canadian forces landed.  Like the others, the sea appears miles out when the tide is out, very much like Weston.  It only adds to the sheer size of the beach.  When the forces landed on 6 June 1944, they opted to land when the tide was out so they could avoid the obstacles and booby traps in the water such as the hedgehogs.  To land so far from the sea and then have to make their way with their heavy kit to the edge of the beach and onto the road…..it really is astonishing how they did it under that fire of bullets.  Juno was a success story but again did not come without its losses.  There is a lovely memorial by Courseulles-Sur-Mer which is worth visiting.  This is the spot where many of the key figures arrived after D-Day such as Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, King George VI and Eisenhower.

We returned once again to our old faithful, Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer for our evening meal and decided to splash out at Le Poisson Dans Tous Ses Etats (‘Fish in all its states’).  We hadn’t booked and were lucky to get a table as this place filled up with locals quickly.  We enjoyed fish soup, battered fish and chips with two types of fish and a trio of desserts and a lemon mille feuille.  The restaurant does not have a website but is on the promenade looking out to sea next to Le Charleston; if you always pick where you eat on Trip Advisor you will miss out on this little gem!

Read Part I and Part III.