Normandy is an area of rich history, deep tradition, creamy sauces, lush farmland, and warm-hearted people. Eager to experience all that awaits along the Calvados coastline, these two history nerds/foodies hopped in the car for our longest road trip to-date. On the 7.5-ish hour drive (it’s still too soon for S to discuss our “detours”) from Mainz to Saint-Laurent -sur-Mer, we listened to the audiobook of Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day, absorbing the weight of that battle, the youth, innocence, and incredible determination of the American soldiers, most just boys, and the immeasurable odds that they overcame to secure the beaches of Normandy and liberate France. With Ambrose’s words fresh in our minds, and Eisenhower’s order of, “Okay, let’s go,” echoing in the car, we drove up to the bluff above Omaha Beach, and as the Channel, the sand, the dunes, and the wild grasses of the bluff’s northern face came into view, we both inhaled deeply, struck by the magnitude of this location’s past and current beauty and almost afraid to acknowledge the reality of the sadness hovering over and ingrained in the sand.
Life goes on in Normandy today in a quite and respectful manner. The people who call the area home carry on, but the sacrifices made by so many have not been forgotten, as many homes and businesses proudly fly the French and American flags side by side. A few homes line the beaches beyond the dunes and small towns pop up here and there along the coastline. Farm houses surrounded by lush green and gold fields, cows of all colors, tractors, lambs, and roosters, cover the area. Every now and then, we’d pass a farm house selling Calvados Cider and Brandy. We stopped in one and were greeted by a friendly couple with smiling faces, tanned and creased by long days in the sun planting, picking, and processing the apples that go into their famously delicious spirits. Cider quickly became our favorite meal accompaniment of the weekend and a little Calvados was the perfect thing to sip after dinner (and sometimes lunch).
On our first day, we checked into a B&B, La Sapinière, a cozy hideaway on Omaha Beach with the friendliest of staffs and a lively restaurant filled with locals, sometimes live music, and delicious fresh seafood (more on that later). Then we immediately headed out to the beach. At low tide, the beach head seems to go on forever. We stood there for a while imagining what it would have been like getting off a Higgins boat, and then if you survived the dismount, fighting your way through Rommel’s asparagus, hedgehogs, and other obstacles, all the while battling machine gun fire from the pill boxes on the bluff. Utterly terrifying.
Later we drove out to Pointe du Hoc and gasped at the enormous craters created by the air bombardment, making swiss cheese of the now serene landscape. At the edge of the cliffs, we peered over down to the crashing waves below, feeling humbled by the Rangers’ ability to scale the rock-face and secure the German battery.
On the second day, we visited the American Cemetery and Memorial at Coleville-sur-Mer. Nestled on a cliff above Omaha Beach, the graves of the fallen have the most peaceful and serene view of the Channel. It was truly an emotionally overwhelming sight.
We traveled on to Sainte-Mère-Église, where members of the 82nd Airborne were mistakenly dropped right in the middle of a German garrison. Miraculously, several paratroopers survived, including Private John Steele, whose parachute tangled in the church steeple, allowing him to be easily captured by German forces. He was taken prisoner and escaped and then went on to jump again in Holland and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His survival was largely due to the fact that while he was hanging form the church steeple, his friend, a former Heisman trophy winner who had been mortally wounded in the stomach, used his last bit of strength to shoot a German sniper aiming at Steele. The tragedy and heroism of this sight was truly powerful. Today, the church is beautifully adorned with stained glass windows honoring the paratroopers who jumped into the town to liberate France.
That same day we ventured out to Utah Beach and were struck by the difference in casualties – less than 200 lives were lost here, versus Omaha Beach’s staggering loss of over 3,000 lives. It was strange to see families here and on Omaha Beach playing by the water and others racing bikes with sails on the sand, but at the same time, it was comforting to realize that life goes on in Normandy and that the lives lost here produced a better future for the area’s inhabitants.
That evening we explored the town of Bayeux and it’s beautiful cathedral, and dined on an amazing dinner of garlicy escargot and mussels swimming in a creamy Normande sauce. And, of course, we enjoyed some local cider.
We were also lucky enough to visit Angoville au Plain where there’s a 12th century church in which two medics cared for over 80 wounded Germans and Americans on D-Day. The heroics of the two medics, Bob Wright and Kenneth Moore, are commemorated by the town in the church’s stained glass windows. The wooden benches are still stained with blood from when they were used has hospital beds.
We spent a beautiful weekend in a beautiful place more or less cut off from technology. While our hotel had wifi, it followed the calm and peaceful speed of the area. Our plans were to have a nice long dinner one night and then watch the Longest Day in preparation for wandering around the monuments the next day. I know, nerds. The wifi, however, had other plans. We had begun to download the movie in Mainz with 8 minutes remaining, but when we tried to finish the download in Normandy, my iPad told us that there were 82,537 minutes remaining. Lesson learned. Complete all downloads before heading out on a road trip. But really, there was an incredible freedom in a wireless weekend. Without our phones ever present, we were free to talk, to feel the weight of history press upon us, to taste the Cider and Calvados, to chat with the locals, and to enjoy each other. There was certainly a sense of freedom in not having internet access. And that let us fully appreciate the freedoms that were at stake on D-Day. That’s so corny, but it’s true. And we loved every second of it.
When you study something in school, read about it, and watch stories about it acted out on screen, it’s easy to think about it as fictional, a historical myth, but Normandy and the sacrifices made there are as real as each of our own homes. Thanks to the efforts of so many, our weekend in Normandy was an unforgettable reality. One that we hope to return to in the non-fictional future.
After experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the beaches, we weren’t quite ready to leave the northern French coast, so we traveled to Le Mont Saint Michel and were not disappointed. Then, on our way home, we made a stop at the cliffs at Étretat. What a road trip?!