Mark above the beaches of Normandy at Pointe du Hoc, where dislodging German guns was one of the top priorities for D-Day
While technically we’d been to Normandy before – Mark was in Mont St. Michel decades ago, and Monet’s house in Giverny is in Normandy – neither of us had ever been to the D-Day beaches and all that Battle of Normandy stuff. So, once we’d cancelled our trip to Ireland to stay in France, it made sense to go an experience that part of history.
We based ourselves in Caen, a classic Norman city just nine miles inland from the English Channel. While we went there because of its relatively central location for the D-Day invasion, Caen (pronounced something like kaan) actually has two claims to historic fame: besides its central position in the Battle of Normandy, Caen was also where William the Conqueror built a key castle for the defense of Normandy in 1060, just a few years before he conquered England. The castle still stands as one of the largest medieval fortresses in Western Europe, and William himself is buried in Caen’s beautiful Church of St. Stephen.
William the Conqueror’s castle, built about 1060
Our stop in Caen was brief – just two days – and most of that was dedicated to the whole Battle of Normandy experience. We did take time, though, to walk through the castle (which was nice but not really that interesting) and through the Church of St. Stephen. We did the latter on the morning of our departure, since we had an hour or so to kill before our train to Rouen. What a fantastic experience! There was pretty heavy early morning fog that gave the thousand-year-old buildings (St. Stephen is adjacent to an old abbey also built by William the Conqueror) a wonderfully eerie feeling. Sometimes you just get lucky.
The fog-covered St. Stephen’s Church, where William the Conqueror is buried
Meanwhile, there were two pieces to exploring the history of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. First up was the Memorial of Caen (also sometimes called the Memorial for Peace), a museum about World War II with an obvious emphasis on the Battle for Normandy. It was great museum: clear, comprehensive, and honest. I found its message somewhat confused, though that could have been just me. On the one hand it made clear the brutality and fundamental evil of the Nazis, both in their attempt to subdue Europe and of course in the racial war against Jews. At the same time, though, it seemed to try to make the case that war itself is wrong and evil and to be avoided at all costs. One might think that the pictures of Neville Chamberlain in Munich would have put that idea to rest.
This striking photo of Germans hanging young Soviet resisters was a powerful piece of propaganda for the Soviets, showing how evil the Germans were and how brave the resisters were. What they didn’t reveal until 1996 was that the woman killed here was Jewish. I mean, how could you make a Jew an heroic figure?
At the same time I was curious how the museum would deal with the French collaborators, Marshal Pétain and so on who had made a pact with the devil to rule unoccupied France. The museum didn’t shy away at all from acknowledging the role those French played in supporting Hitler, observing that Pétain explicitly believed collaboration was important so France would have a seat at the table once a victorious Hitler ruled Europe.
The big event, of course, was a tour of the Normandy beaches. Since we don’t have a car (YAY!) we booked a tour through the museum and, though we don’t usually like being part of a horde, it turned out pretty good. In the English-speaking group along with us there was only an extended family of nine (a spry 80-year-old woman, her kids and grandkids) and one quiet Spaniard so it wasn’t too big a group.
Everyone knows the basics here. On June 6, 1944 the Allies launched the largest seaborne invasion in history as ultimately a million Allied troops would be committed to the Battle of Normandy. To say the least, it was a big deal. I was glad, though, that both the museum and the beach tour emphasized not just the landing itself and those first days of fighting, but the entire Battle of Normandy, something that I knew little of. That it wasn’t just the heroism and bravery of those who landed initially, but the brutal fighting that went on for weeks to take towns like Caen and St. Lo, along with the massive destruction wrought as the Germans held out and the Allies pushed forward slowly. Being there, obviously, makes it more alive than it ever is in a history book.
And then, on top of all that, to discover that Omaha Beach is really a beach … a huge beach, quite deep and stretching for miles. When you go there today there are lots of families out enjoying the sun and the sand. As though it were just any beach which, to the locals I suppose, it is.
The American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer
The two-day stop in Caen was not enough. It was a cute town with some great history that would have been fun to explore. And we just stumbled onto a great restaurant with some of the best steak tartare and escargot we’ve had here in France. The weather is perfect, and traveling by train around here just adds to the joy. The only downside was a hotel malfunction. We booked an Ibis Style hotel, cheap but the number one rated hotel in Caen on TripAdvisor. We got to the hotel and they didn’t have a reservation. We showed them the email and they explained that we’d reserved the other Ibis Style hotel in town, the one rated 31 out of 41 hotels. Ugh. Oh well, it was only two days. And as much as we liked Caen we’d already made hotel reservations in Rouen so now it’s up there for a couple days before heading back to Paris.
The museum in Caen did not try to whitewash France’s collaboration with Hitler. This photo of Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun, meeting with Hitler tells it all.
It’s worth remembering that Hitler first came to power in an election. This poster – “Our Last Hope: HITLER” it says – evokes other strong man candidates, like a guy who says “I alone can fix it.”
Pointe du Hoc, where President Reagan commemorated the 40th anniversary of D-Day
Another church in Caen shrouded in fog. It looks as though the back of the church was bombed out in the Battle of Normandy and was never replaced.
As the fog was lifting we got this view of St. Stephan’s. There were flags of many countries in front of City Hall, perhaps in recognition of the role played by the Allies in freeing Caen.
The Men’s Abbey, built by William the Conqueror and now CIty Hall, on the left, with St. Stephan’s church on the right
The tomb of William the Conqueror
The peaceful Orne river running through Caen
Fabulous steak tartare – with a little layer of carpaccio over it, in case you don’t have enough raw beef – at a restaurant we stumbled onto without the help of TripAdvisor
And one last shot from the American cemetery, lest we forget the sacrifices made