Hail had hit Paris the night before, and the morning dawned cold. It was April, so I don’t even want to think about what February was like that year. I was wearing a long coat, turtleneck, a scarf, no gloves (this will matter later), and warm shoes and socks. It’s what a California dweller like myself will wear when it hits 63 degrees. I was off to Normandy for a D-Day tour, well aware that in 1944, the weather was equally dismal and it was June. Should I have packed snowshoes?
These days we email clients their train tickets. They get the bar code scanned right on board. Once upon a time you had to “composte” (punch) your ticket in a little old-fashioned machine parked by the train door.
I was traveling last minute so I bought my train ticket direct to Caen (pronounced kind of like the sound a crow makes, with some phlegm-clearing at the back), right at the Normandie window in Paris’ Saint Lazare station. It was around 7:30 on a Saturday morning, and the line was short. I trotted out the phrase “un billet, premier class a Caen” and I was off in the nice warm train. After 20 miles watching, cow, cow, steeple, green fields, cow, steeple, darling stone house, cow, cow pass by, I fell asleep.
We’d been sending people on this tour for a few weeks, and now it was my turn. We never book what we haven’t seen, tasted or done. This route does not have a meal car, so I had brought along a croissant and coffee I bought in the station. St. Lazare happens to be among the nicest stations in Paris with great food choices and even a shopping mall attached.
After our one and only experience (as non travel professionals, just as wide-eyed consumers) doing a big bus multi language tour, I was relieved I would be with no more than 7 people. That big bus tour gave me the most instantaneous splitting headache I’ve ever had. There were funny stories later, though, as we laughed over our guide’s ability (god love her) to solicit tips in 5 languages. If we were sharing a pint of beer or glass of wine, I’d also tell you about her unintentionally bawdy language slip-ups, as well.
90% of our Normandy clients do the D-Day Tour which includes pick up at the Caen rail station. Today however, I was going to try Caen’s public transport system as clients sometimes need to use it. Caen has a reputation for good public transport; I was going to put it to the test. Outside the train station, I took Tram A to where it intersected with Bus Line #2, got off, and waited a while on the wrong side of the street.
I managed enough French to get a nice young college girl to tell me I needed to go to the other side of the street. Which I did, trying to look nonchalant. “No, no, I didn’t just stand around waiting for a bus to take me back the way I came. Nope, not me.” In case you’re curious, it was not, as I had feared, raining or foggy. But there were (no joke) 30 mph wind gusts coming off the ocean.
The only time I ever had breathed air this fresh was when I mistakenly took a ski chair up to a black diamond run which started above the timber line. I’ll tell you that story another time. Leave it for now that me and 11 guys training for the Olympic downhill were the only ones on the lift. A nice touch at a French bus stop is the electronic sign which counts down the minutes till the next bus comes. Awesome.
After touring the Memorial de Caen and eating a really tasty quiche lunch, our group (consisting of two Americans in France on business and two nice British young women and their snowy-haired uncle) was soon off to the artificial harbor at Arromanches. We learned how the harbor was built and why the landing site was chosen. There was plenty of walking, though our guide, who was not at his first rodeo, cleverly nabbed one of the golf carts meant for the infirm and drove us out to the German gun battery.
The French have left it, rusting and still menacing, open and available for all to climb around, take pictures, cut your hand, what have you. I love that they aren’t lawsuit-happy there. “You cut your hand not me” is the motto. A good gust of wind could have sent 20 school-kids over the cliff edge, since there weren’t any guard rails. Gallic shrug to that.
Of course it all got incredibly somber and humbling at the coast. Mindful that our crew was half British, the guide made a special stop at the British cemetery as well as the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer (the “Private Ryan” cemetery – American.) The British cemetery is far simpler and smaller. The British made a point of putting the birthdates and death dates on every grave. At Colleville, we learned that had deliberately not been done.
The feeling was that seeing D Day led to the deaths of so many young men was just too heart-breaking. Still, our guide wanted us to know that the average age at death was 22. That fact has remained burned in my brain. Thank you is all I can say.
Normandy is where Hitler stockpiled most of the loot he took from Eastern Europe, the Jews, the vanquished. As we drove from place to place, the guide would point out where prison labor dug into underground caverns to hide art, diamonds and valuables. The Normans had to live with that for 4 years until June 1944. Normandy natives grew up on stories about the American liberators, and they still are grateful to this day.
As we toured the cemetery and prepared to leave for our final stop, Omaha beach, our guide pointed out the “eye over the pyramid” symbol which adorns a stunning white wall near the Visitor Center. Our guide was mystified by it, and even asked us what it meant. One of the American business guys happily dug out a $1 bill to show him. It made the guide’s day to have that question answered. Though I’m sure it raised more questions. Why is this on the $1 bill? Is everyone in America a Mason? A Templar Knight?
And to Omaha we went. The guide made good time along the winding and quaint roads. These small villages endured some incredible history. That they are still here is really mind-boggling. I recall seeing a special monument to Roosevelt’s son. He died saving Europe from the Nazis.
At Omaha, there were a few rusted pieces of rebar poking out of the sand, and a natural surf break had evolved from piles of shattered concrete. Wind surfers in wetsuits were taking advantage of the stiff breeze. You could walk along the beach, and we all did, each going in a different direction, the group not really a unified group for the moment (you do get cozy in a minivan with strangers). Fishing boats were being brought in, and further up the coast, cottages seemed unchanged for 150 years.
There was a cross, of course, and down the road is the Omaha Beach Museum, but without those things you wouldn’t know where you were. It was, and is, a modest wind-blown beach on a fishing coast where Hitler least expected an attack. Just imagine that it was not until late August of 1944 that the Germans surrendered Paris. The terrible cost of June 6 was only a beginning.
Laura Glendinning is a travel writer, and Vice President of www.linkparis.com, which, among other things, send clients to the Normandy landing beaches on day trips.
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