Our third day in Normandy we drove from our hotel at Gold Beach to the medieval island abbey of Mont Saint Michel.
Mont St Michel is impressive – no matter how you look at it.
Pretty much it’s just a small island, that is completely covered by the labyrinth of a walled-town that is draped over the hill of the island. It’s narrow streets, stairs, stone walls, and ancient buildings no matter where you look.
I remember being surprised years ago when I learned that it was the second most visited tourist site in France (after le Tour Eiffel). It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and receives 3.5 million visitors to its tiny island home every year.
There has been a church here since the year 709, with major additions in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. It was given military fortifications in the 14th century, had Romanesque parts replaced by Gothic in the 15th, was used as a prison during the French Revolution, then finally restored in the 1800’s.
So yeah – it’s been there for a while – and yeah – even my renovation projects are quicker than that!
On our way back from Mont Saint Michel, we drove through Bayeux, so we stopped in to look at the Commonwealth Cemetery, took a better look at the Cathedral and had a nice traditional crêpes for supper.
The next morning we had to get the car back to Caen, stopping at a Canadian war cemetery on the way.
We looked around Caen, saw the cathedral that still stands in spite of the damage it took from Allied bombing, and a Chateau that was built by William the Conqueror.
Strange place Caen, when you stand atop the walls of the chateau and look out, you can see just a hand-full of buildings that predate the war. This city which was built up in the middle-ages, was levelled by Allied bombing and the subsequent battle. It strangely doesn’t really look like a French city, there are just no old buildings except for the few churches that seemed to have survived.
Basically this city was beaten down with an amazing force – essentially levelling a city that had been a local, regional and even national seat of power for centuries.
As we wondered back towards the train station, we got caught in a downpour – but it was the only rain we had the whole time, so we were quite fortunate.
Then back onto our train to Paris, and a TGV home.
In April, my Dad & his oldest son (me), and my oldest son (Jonah) went on a trip up to north-western France to see some of the D-Day sites in Normandy. We spent two days in Paris on the way there, then 3 days in Normandy. The most well-known are of course, the D-Day landing beaches where Allied troops came ashore in the early morning of June 6, 1944.
We wanted to see some of the places where this part of history actually took place. I hate to call them ‘sites’ as it makes them seem like tourist attractions – instead of places where so much human struggle, grief and pain was born.
SIDE NOTE: We’ve home-schooled Jonah this year – mostly because we were quite sure this would be our kids’ last year in the French school system, and it meant him changing schools, and having an incredibly heavy load and long days – all for the sake of a system that he wouldn’t finish. (yes – I did rant on about this earlier). Anyway – one of the real advantages of this has been that we can adapt his curriculum to our life -and visa versa. If we know we are going on a trip to London…then we can shift some of his history and literature and get him to study England for the weeks leading up to the trip. If we plan a trip to Normandy – we shift his history to include WWII. It’s worked out quite well.
We took the train from Paris to Caen, picked up a rental car and spent the entire afternoon at the huge and impressive museum there. Technically it’s called The Caen Memorial – Centre for History & Peace – and that does really describe it.
In creating the museum, they have managed to avoid glorifying war while at the same time describing what the war (and war in general) was actually like. It obviously has a great deal on WWII – and notably the parts that took place in Normandy – but it also has an entire section on how the globe descended into the total war of 1939-1945, the Cold War, and what the struggle for peace has looked like over the past 70 years. Well worth a visit if you ask me.
We then drove out to the hotel we rented, which turned out to actually have a view onto Gold Beach. We could see one of the artillery fortifications from the room. I can’t figure out exactly why – but it did seem surreal in some way. It was getting close to supper time – but the forecast for the next three days was (not unsurprisingly for Normandy) a good chance of rain. So we figured that since it wasn’t raining – this may be our only chance to actually see the beaches without being rained on. We drove up the coast a bit to Juno beach, where the Canadians landed that morning.
We saw Juno beach, then headed up the coast in the other direction, looking for a place to eat. We eventually got to Arromanches-les-Bains, the location of one of the two Mulberry Harbour artificial ports the Allies used during the invasion.
Over its 100 days of usage, some 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of other materials came ashore over Port Winston – right though what is now back to a sleepy seaside fishing and tourist town.
We were not far from the town of Bayeaux so we headed there the next morning – to have a look at the 500 year old cathedral which miraculously survived all the conflict that surround it over the years.
Bayeux actually has a bit of history going for a town of its size – not only was it the first city liberated in 1944, but William the Conqueror hung out here a bit, and the world famous Bayeux Tapestry is – not surprisingly – found here.
The next day we went to the Juno beach centre. The museum there has been really well done, and it gave great insight into D-Day, WWII in general, and a whole lot of Canadian history that I never knew. Canada actually played an interesting role in WWI – considering that the country had essentially no military to speak of at the beginning of the war, and a population of only 10 million, yet by the 1945 over 40% of all its men had volunteered to fight, and it ended up with the third largest navy and fourth largest air force in the world.
We later drove up the coast to the American Cemetery which overlooks Omaha Beach. There really are no words to describe this place.
The British, Canadians, French & Germans tended to bury their war-dead in smaller cemeteries, closer to where they fell. The Americans erected almost 10,000 white-marble grave-markers of their fallen (plus a memorial wall to the 1,500 missing in action) into a 170 acre cemetery up above the cliffs that overlook the landing beaches.
Later we went to Pont du Hoc, a strategic point that was taken by US Rangers who had to scale the sheer cliff face just to get to the point where they could start trying to take the gun positions.
Since this was a key target, it was heavily bombed ahead of the landing, and the earth there still bears the scars of that heavy shelling. Hard to believe that the current state is what the ground looks like after 7 decades of erosion, growth, rain, wind.
We saw quite a bit in only two days. The weather held out – and we never actually got rained on at all. Up next – Mont St Michel.
On the way to Normandy – Jonah and I met up with my Dad for a quick 2 day multi-generational trip to Paris. Actually, it felt a bit like I was in some lame movie – when we made plans to meet in front of Notre Dame. Dad was pretty much landing at Charles de Gaulle in the morning about an hour before Jonah and I were leaving Grenoble – some 600km away. Thanks to the TGV we arrived at Gare de Lyon, took the metro, and got to Notre Dame about an hour after him.
We got two-day tickets for the Batobus – a hop-on/hop-off boat that rolls up and down the river Seine. Highly recommended. We used it before when we were in Paris with Susan’s mom when Alma was just a baby – and I think it’s one of the best ways to get around the city. Especially if you have limited time -and are dealing with kids, tired people, jet-lag etc. You get from one place to another on a leisurely cruise- rather than trying not to lose kids transferring from one metro to another in a crowded station with the warm-damp air that smells of human urine blowing on you. (don’t get me wrong – I love the Paris Metro – but it’s not a place I’d want to lose a kid.)
We had about a day and a half – so it was a bit of a whirl-wind tour.
We actually hit up quite a bit in those hours.
One cool thing that we’ve never done in Paris is the tour of the Catacombs.
Much of the limestone that was used in the construction of many of the buildings in Paris in the 16th century and on, came from a collection of mines – most of which were just outside the city. Also, many of the cemeteries had been established – some as early on as the 5th century, but some of the remaining ones in the 12th. The city continued to grow which lead to two issues- the cemeteries were full, and the city grew out on top of these abandoned, forgotten about horizontal mine shafts.
By the 1780’s there were occurrences of mass-graveyard walls collapsing in some parts of the city, and buildings collapsing into the ground in others. Two birds – one stone. The city set up a department to explore, map, and secure the mines. Then – they decided to use a few sections as a massive underground mausoleum.
The section that is part of the visit is 130 steps down – and about 2km along – some 20m under the streets of Paris.
The whole thing is rather surreal.
We saw Sainte-Capelle – the small church on the Isle de la Cité which was built as King Luis IX private chapel in the early 1200’s.
The church has some of the most extreme and well kept examples of high-gothic architecture and stained glass anywhere.
We swung past the Louvre (just to look at the building and gardens), wandered past Centre Pompidou, the Palais Garnier, and so much other stuff that I lost track. Considering my Dad was just coming off 9 hours of jet lag – I’d say we hit the ground running.