Remembering Normandy

Trip Start Apr 04, 2007
Trip End Oct 22, 2007

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Flag of France  , Normandy,
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

We're staying here in the little town of Caen as our base for exploring the area of Normandy with it's recent and bloody military history. Although Caen is most famous for it's proximity to Normandy and the D-Day Beaches of World War 2, the town is beautiful and fascinating in its own right, and home to the ancient castle of William the Conqueror, a famous Norman who ruled these parts 1000 years ago.

We had a chatty young American guy from our hostel in Paris on the train with us and as far as the info centre, but we left him to his own devices there trying to find a place to stay and headed to our (pre-booked) hotel - we have finally learned to book ahead after all these months on the road! The Hotel de la Paix was dated but bright and clean and it was nice to have our own space again after so many nights in hostels with cramped little dorm rooms and snoring bunk-mates. Besides which, at just 37 Euros a night, it was about half the price of a dorm bed in Paris, definitely the upside of getting out of the big cities.

We settled in then headed into town to book a rental car and pick up maps for our planned trip to the beaches the next day, then got a take-away dinner of fresh cannelloni pasta and hot pizza from a local patisserie and ate a picnic dinner on the grass in front of the imposing centuries-old fortress.

We got an early start the next day, grabbing fresh croissants for breakfast from the bakery down the street and heading into town again to pick up our little Citroen rental car. Once we got out of the confusing maze of one-way streets and roundabouts in Caen, the drive through the countryside was beautiful. As soon as we reached the coast, we passed through a string of tiny villages with narrow streets lined with centuries-old stone homes. All along the beaches here were reminders of the battles and sacrifices of 60 years ago; stone plaques and monuments, old German bunkers and machine-gun placements, and tanks fished from the ocean or left as memorials where they had broken down during the fighting.

We stopped several times to see various monuments, walk along the peaceful sandy beach at what was once the scene of bloody fighting at Sword Beach, and reflect for a moment at the memorial to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the unit Dan served with while in the Reserves. We carried on around the coast to Courselles-sur-Mer, the town at Juno Beach and home to the excellent Canadian museum, the Juno Beach Centre, the opening of which Dan had played at with the Rifles band several years earlier. We spent a long time there going through the exhibits, starting with a film shown while you stood in a replica landing craft, and using footage taken on D-Day to recreate the chaos and noise of the battle.

From the museum, we walked past the crumbling fortifications to the beach itself and sat for a while on the sand, trying to reconcile the serene white sand view over the ocean with the suffering, savagery and courage that had occurred here in our grandparent's youth. Dan's grandpa, Cliff Carrothers, was especially on our minds, as he had served and been badly wounded here just days after the landings.

From Juno Beach, we headed to the Canadian cemetary at Beny-sur-Mer, stopping for lunch at a tiny town with a fantastic patisserie and munching on fresh quiche, cheeses and Danish pastries as we got lost repeatedly on the winding back roads. Eventually, armed with a map from the helpful staff at the Juno Beach Centre, we found the site tucked in amongst farmer's fields. Like the beaches, we were immediately struck by how serene and beautiful it was. Orange autumn leaves fell softly onto the carefully kept grass, and row upon row of white crosses stretched out before us, each inscribed with the name and age of a young Canadian soldier - most were in their late teens or early twenties. Some had a message inscribed at their base by bereaved family or comrades, and more than a few had fluttering Canadian flags or handwritten notes placed there by a relative making the pilgrimage to this resting place of so many of Canada's youth. It was a moving experience, and a privilege to have been able to make the journey here.

We carried on further around the coast on a fittingly grey and chilly day to the town of Arromanche. A specially built 360degree round theatre there shows a frighteningly realistic film combining D-day footage with film of modern-day Normandy, and the effect of being surrounded by the noise and pictures was so convincing that at one point I almost tried to take cover when machine-guns burst into fire behind me. In the rain, we drove down to the beach below to walk among the rusting hulks of the portable docks the British had used to make their landing here, and wandered some of the souvenier shops selling rusted old helmets, shell casings and artillery rounds beside postcards and boxes of chocolates. Our drive home was quiet and contemplative as we wound through gorgeous little medieval towns and picturesque fields on the way back to Caen.

Yesterday, we had a much-needed rest day, sleeping in late then wandering around Caen. We walked the ramparts of William the Conqueror's Castle, shopped for souvenirs and survived a bus crash when a car T-boned the city bus we were riding. We spent the rest of the afternoon writing blogs and postcards and munching on a giant bag of tiny little pain au chocolats (chocolate filled mini-croissants) from the nearby bakery, just the rest we need before heading on to Belgium tomorrow.

All our best from France,

Dan and Gabes
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