We just completed the last leg of our Tour de France: Normandy. It was an educational and emotional week in this French region known for its camembert and cider, but internationally infamous for being the landing site of the Allies on D-Day.
The Germans were not the first people to conquer the area now known as Normandy. A millennium ago, this region was conquered and subsequently settled by the Vikings. The descendents, known by then as “the Normans”, later took control of England from King Edward in 1066 under the leadership of William the Conqueror. This conquest (the Battle of Hastings) is brought to life by the largest comic strip in the world, a 68 m tapestry that has been preserved for almost a thousand years and now sits in a glass display in the city of Bayeux. The brutality of war is evident in the moving scenes of chaos and death, but this was not the last time that war boats would cross the English Channel with the intention of shedding blood.
Nine centuries later, those who were conquered by the Normans would become their liberators. Indeed, the war monument in Bayeux inscribes that: “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land”. The Germans had occupied France since 1940, and had overtaken most countries of continental Europe. During the four years, the Germans (and their civilian and military prisoners) had worked to build the Atlantic Wall, which was a stronghold of defences wrapping around the continent in preparation for a coastal attack from the Allies. The Atlantic Wall consisted of bunkers, beach obstacles and mines and although it was not yet complete by 1944, it was a formidable D- |^||^||^|. In order to successfully breach this stronghold, and the strength of the awaiting Germany army, the Allies rallied together the largest amphibious force in history. In the early hours of June 6th, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops landed on five separate beaches in Normandy (Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold). Despite suffering heavy casualties, the courage and sheer numbers of the Allied forces overwhelmed the Germans, and marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime.
To help us better understand these events and their details, we visited three museums, two cemeteries and former batteries. The most meaningful museum we visited was the Canadian museum, situated at the Canadian’s landing beach (Juno). This surprisingly new museum (opened in 2003) accounted the involvement of Canadians in the D-Day invasions, the Battle of Normandy, and other campaigns throughout World War II, and detailed the war effort on native soil. We also had a beach tour which better put in to context what the invasion would have been like. We were sobered by the stories, and also the numbers: one million men served overseas, out of only a population of 11 million. 45,000 of these men died, and we were very moved by our visit to the Canadian War Cemetery which made an eternal home for almost 3,000 of soldiers. The graves all had emotional epitaphs, but perhaps the most poignant aspect of our visit was that the age of each soldier was also included on the grave; the vast majority were in their early- or mid-twenties like us. Overall, we were extremely impressed by the cemetery. Perched on a hill overlooking the beaches and surrounding area, the grounds were immaculately kept and the area was quiet and felt quite peaceful. A special touch was that maple trees had been planted throughout.
We also visited the American cemetery where almost 10,000 bodies are laid to rest. Although less quiet, the Americans have done an excellent job in commemorating their war heroes. We had a great stroke of luck as we were met in the parking lot by Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is the director of the cemetery and was meant to give a tour to White House delegates but, because of their car troubles, had a free hour and instead offered to give us a tour. Being a long time military man and a war veteran himself (Vietnam and Korea) he was very passionate about honouring the people who died in WWII. He was incredibly informative and honest and knew great detail about the lives of many of the buried soldiers. Learning these stories added a lot of depth to our experience, allowing us really to identify with the men who fought here. This cemetery homes so many lost sons, fathers, lovers and friends; and, as Mr. Anderson reminded us, there are still many people who remember and love these deceased. Especially emotional was seeing brothers buried side by side (the cemetery has 41 sets of brothers) and this cemetery is the only American cemetery where a father and son rest together.
Certainly this experience evoked sadness within us about the youthful, innocent lives lost. However, more than grief, we were overcome by the reality of our own good fortune. We appreciate now more than ever that our freedom is something we did not earn ourselves but is rather a gift from our ancestors who made immense sacrifices. Seeing the deceased reminds and inspires us to live the best life that we can.
And the evidence of freedom abounds in this place. Although this area is heavy with memories, and the towns still seem to be recovering from their complete annihilation seven decades ago, there is a real sense of beauty and peace to coastal Normandy. One particularly moving episode was watching two French-speaking adults playing on Omaha Beach with two young German children, of whom they seemed to be the guardian of. As we watched their sand castle get bigger, we saw this as a genuine expression of the peace that has come to Europe since the war. We also felt proud of our last night on the beaches; we camped just by the shores and enjoyed a good meal and a glass of wine before going for a long barefoot walk along the beach with the sunset. We think this would have been what so many of the soldiers were fighting for: the ability to be free with loved ones.
And we were happy to have the chance to explore a free Normandy. The stereotype of Normandy rings true: lots, and lots of cows grazing in the rolling green pastures, often amidst apple orchards. A highlight of our time in Normandy was our stay in Bayeux with Marie from Warm Showers who welcomed us into her beautiful 15th century home, situated right next to the town’s incredible cathedral. She cooked us amazing food, including fresh bread every morning with homemade jam and yogurt, and also shared with us many of her perspectives, and gave us a better understanding of French life. We would have loved to stay for much longer with Marie, and although we decided to continue to the ferry, we have an open invitation to return to Bayeux which we hope we can take up sometime soon. Marie, as all our hosts have been, is certainly an ambassador for the peace, as bringing strangers into your home, showering them with generosity, and exchanging ideas is certainly an excellent way to maintain harmony and cross-cultural understanding. Kudos again, Warm Showers.
And in Normandy we received two especially exciting things. The first, a pair of shoes!
After eight months on the road, Caitlin’s shoes had become nearly sandals and her clip for the pedal was fairly non-existent. We knew it would soon be time to purchase new ones, but a bit wary of the cost. However, while wandering through a flea market in a tiny town, we saw a pair of brand new cycle shoes in Caitlin’s exact size sitting alone on a table! We purchased the shoes for only 30 euros and Caitlin is now enjoying a more comfortable ride. The other thing we FINALLY were able to receive was Caitlin’s passport. Thank you so much to everyone who helped her get a new one!
Now, with passport in hand, we have the ability to leave the Schengen Region. We are thus boarded a boat in Cherbourg (the site of a decisive WWII battle and the continental port the Titanic sailed from) headed for Ireland where we will spend close to three weeks. The weather is looking a bit wet, but we hope that the scenery and local “craic” (merrymaking) will balance it out!
And as a final farewell to France we must extend a big thank you to this country. We cycled over 2500 kilometres and spent about seven weeks exploring, and France exceeded all expectations. It is full of beautiful places, good people, fascinating history and delicious food. It is impossible to say which country so far is our “favourite”, but we can be sure that we will return to France. There is more to discover and new friends to reconnect with.
We’ll keep our eyes out for a pot of gold,
Alec and Caitlin