Thursday, May 10, 2007

Logbook: French Road Trip II - Normandy

Frenchroadtripii1By the time I did my website update and got something to eat last Monday night I was feeling pretty wiped out. I think it was mostly the fact that I had spent three solid days on the road, including the stress of navigating and getting settled in large cities each night. It could also have been that I’m just not a “big city” guy -- I generally find them to be exhausting and not very interesting. This was especially true in the noise, crowds and bustle of Nantes last Monday, so I was happy to head back to my relatively quiet little room and crash. I got up pretty early on Tuesday morning and went out in search of coffee. Sadly, it seems that the French have not yet invented the “go cup” -- nor the simple, delicious “cup of coffee” many of us relish -- so all you can get is a tiny little espresso “shooter” if you are lucky enough to find an open cafe. Tuesday was yet another holiday here in France, so the whole city center was closed and virtually deserted. After walking around for a while without finding the elixir I love, I decided to get out of town and hit the road. I packed up, checked out and -- without too much difficulty -- retraced my steps back to where I had left my car. In almost eighteen hours I had seen practically none of Nantes and was perfectly happy to be leaving.

Back on the road I made good time heading north, stopping at a few of the really nice plazas along the way for fuel -- food, coffee and diesel. By mid afternoon I arrived in the lovely little city -- more like a town -- of Bayeux and checked into the Hotel Churchill, an excellent choice as my base of operations for exploration in Normandy. I spent the afternoon and early evening wandering around, making the requisite visit to the famous Bayeux Tapestry. I’m really not much of a “needlework” guy, but this one is truly amazing and definitely worth the hour it takes to do the audio tour. After a simple, quiet dinner, I hit the rack pretty early.

Frenchroadtripii2Early Wednesday morning I met up with a guide from Battlebus -- generally regarded as the best D-Day tour company -- and we headed west to St-Mere-Eglise where US Airborne troops were the first in action for the landings. (Note: For those of you who are already well-informed about the Normandy invasion, what I can say here will be redundant at best. For those of you who are not well-informed, my account would be trivial. So, I am mostly going to relate only where I went and what I did as a way of giving you all some idea of what you can cover -- and in how much time -- when you make your own, strongly advised visit to the area.) We spent about an hour in St-Mere-Eglise, checking out the Airborne Museum and the famous church, then drove around the area for about another hour, making brief stops at just a few important spots of the hedgerow battles. Our next stop was Utah Beach where we stood on the sand while our guide gave us an excellent explanation -- including pictures and maps drawn in the sand -- of what happened in this very successful and relatively low casualty landing -- due in large part to the extremely effective pre-invasion bombardment from sea and air. Thus, in a morning, we had “covered” the western flank of the invasion -- I would suggest making an entire day out of this same area. After a quick sandwich for lunch, we went to Pointe du Hoc where we toured the area, saw the incredible results of even more highly effective pre-invasion bombardment and heard the amazing story of the Ranger assault in context. Our next stop at Omaha Beach just a few minutes away, was very moving. The pictures and movies we have all seen of the landing at Omaha don’t do justice to the nightmare you can only barely imagine when standing there in person. The pre-invasion bombardment had been totally ineffective and the beach defenses up on the bluff were completely intact when the soldiers came ashore. With heavy fire ahead of them and a rapidly rising tide behind there was nowhere to go, and the story of their bloody progress off the beach is astonishing . With this in mind, we proceeded next to the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach. Standing amid the expanse of almost ten thousand perfectly aligned, identical grave markers was an emotionally powerful, almost overwhelming experience. Again, pictures just don’t convey the reality. After wandering around for a while, watching groups of various sizes look for and find particular graves then hearing taps, it was time to leave. The afternoon I spent around Omaha would easily warrant another entire day.

Physically tired, mentally full and emotionally drained, I had a bowl of soup for dinner and went to bed. Thursday morning I drove to the eastern flank of the invasion area where British Airborne seized the Pegasus Bridge. From there I worked my way back along the coast, stopping at various sites including the excellent Canadian museum at Juno Beach. A highlight for me was a lengthy stop at Arromanches to see the remains of the huge artificial “Mulberry” harbor and to tour the outstanding museum of the amazing “buildup” that proceeded from that harbor. Still more stops at a fairly well preserved German battery at Longues-sur-Mer and an exhibit of artifacts recovered from underwater at Port-en-Bessin finished out my day. On another trip I would extend this day into two.

Thus, in brief, I think my two days -- one west of Bayeux and one east -- would be well worth four days in total. I would also suggest three more days as follows: 1) Following the western route from Carentan into Cherbourg 2) Retracing Cobra south from Cherbourg to Avranches then east to Falaise 3) Following the British and Canadian route from Pegasus Bridge south through Caen then east to close the Falaise gap with Patton’s armor in Chambois. That adds up to a very worthwhile week in Normandy which I would strongly recommend and happily do on another trip.

For my present French Road Trip, however, it was time to start heading back south. So, I packed up this morning and hit the road, enjoying another pretty high speed drive here to the picturesque little city of Blois. Arriving mid-afternoon, I knew my little hotel was across the street from the Chateau in the center of town so I found and parked in the deck with the same name. A few minutes of walking around the central area later I saw my destination and checked in. I hit the streets and did a pretty extensive walkabout, found an internet connection and here I am. In a few minutes I will find some dinner then call it a day. I have been moving pretty much non-stop for a week, so I am going to take an easy, “in town” day tomorrow on The Voyage of Macgellan!

No comments: