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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.