Rouen to Bayeux via Caen--D-Day Beaches and WWII Museums
Our first top on the drive from Rouen, France to Bayeux, France, was the Abbey of Jumièges, which is about 45 minutes from Rouen. The original Abbey was built on this site in 654. Of course, the Vikings came along in the 9th century and destroyed the Abbey which was rebuilt by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. (William was known as William the Bastard at the time he started the reconstruction.) Unfortunately, the Abbey was again destroyed, this time during the French Revolution, and it was not rebuilt. The magnificent ruins are wonderful to walk through and admire the once stately Church of Notre Dame.
Our original plan had been to drive to Honfleur, but we decided to go directly to Caen, so we weren’t so rushed. This decision turned out to be a good idea. We made it to Caen in time for lunch, had tasty crepes at Le Grenier a Crepes (Chez Sylvie et Sebastien) and toured the cathedral which has been raised from the ruins left before WWII, before leaving the downtown area to make our way to the WWII museum, Le Memorial de Caen.
The museum opened in 1988 and focuses on WWII and D-Day, but it also highlights the Cold War.
Several hours later, we headed for our night’s lodging in Bayeux, our base for D-Day exploration. We stayed at the Hotel d’Argouges which was built as a private home in the 1700s. The hotel is in easy walking distance to everything…the cathedral, restaurants, and the park that serves as the pickup point for all tours. We enjoyed the walk to and around the cathedral—another Notre Dame cathedral since it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The cathedral was the original location of the Bayeux Tapestry which Bishop Odo, the brother of William the Conqueror, had made to commemorate William’s conquest of England in 1066. (There are still several theories as to who had the tapestry made, but Bishop Odo is the prevailing one.) The cathedral no longer houses the tapestry, but it is worth a visit. (Bayeux was never bombed during WWII so much of the architecture throughout the city is the original.)
After dinner at La Petite Resto--very good--we called it an early evening knowing that the next day would be a long highlight for our trip. We were up early to take our tour of the D-Day Beaches. (We could have easily driven the beaches ourselves, but I would highly recommend taking a tour. We took the Bayeux Shuttle full-day tour with Jordan who was excellent.) All the tours leave from the same place at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). Everyone who lives in Bayeux knows where the vans are and are more than willing to help you find the location.
Driving up to the beaches, we tried to prepare ourselves for the sobering moments that were to come for us this trip because we had heard many stories of the thousands of soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. I won’t go into detail about the war and the beaches themselves, but we did learn so much. (While many of the below may be well-known facts for others, they were new to me.)
· The goal for the D-Day Invasion was for the Allies to enter Nazi-Occupied France, to move into central Europe, and defeat Hitler.
· All the beaches were given code names which have stuck.
· The Allied soldiers trying to take Omaha Beach suffered much greater losses than on Utah due to bad weather, cliffs, hidden explosives, and a strong German presence. Landing was much more dangerous for the soldiers when the tide was high because they could not see explosives that were on the beaches. Many soldiers drowned during the attack as they jumped off wooden landing boats carrying 100-pound packs. (Omaha Beach has one of the highest tides in the world.)
· Both Rommel and Patton were involved in D-Day.
· General Patton made a point to be seen in London the night before the attack to allay suspicion that the Allies would attack the next day.
· The beaches have many ruins and reminders of the fateful day.
· The estimated American death toll from the Normandy Invasion was 29,000, while more than 106,000 were wounded or missing.
· The first cemetery was at Colleville-sur-Mer.
One sight seemed incongruous to me, but as I thought about it, I became impressed. All along the beach were families playing. What a great testament to those who died that families are now able to stroll along the once blood-soaked beach without fear of losing their freedom or their lives.
Our next stop was the homeward (U.S.) facing American Cemetery which was both sobering and inspiring. The bronze statue that greets visitors is entitled, Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. The inscription at its foot is: “To these owe the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live.” Over 9,300 American soldiers are buried in the beautiful cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach, the site where many of them died. The white gravestones have one of two shapes: a cross for Christians and a Star of David for Jews. The seemingly never-ending sea of marble markers are testament to the great sacrifice and loss—all for freedom. In addition, the Wall of the Missing has 1,557 names of military personnel who were declared missing in action. Only 19 of the bodies of these were since found and identified.
The cemetery also includes two of President Teddy Roosevelt’s sons. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was one of the highest ranked officers involved in the D-Day Operation. He was not killed in action but died a month later of a heart attack. The body of his brother, Quentin, who was killed in WWI, was moved to the cemetery for them to be together. Brigadier General Roosevelt, Jr. was one of three soldiers buried in the cemetery who received the Medal of Honor.
The town of Sainte-Mère-Église was our next stop, Thankfully, a small market with excellent food kiosks was going on so we grabbed a quick lunch to give us more time to explore. This town was made famous in the movie The Longest Day. Bad weather was the reason that many of the F Company 505th PIR 82nd Airborne Division landed in the town on the night of June 5, 1944. John Steele’s parachute snagged on the church tower where he hung pretending to be dead. He was finally captured, but he managed to escape after only two hours. The town commemorates the attack by leaving a mannequin hanging from the tower with its parachute still tangled. (John Steele actually hung in his parachute from the opposite side as the mannequin, because the town wanted the mannequin to be more visible.)
Sainte-Mère-Église is home to the Airborne Museum, a must-do experience. Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit all the buildings in the museum, but the Operation Neptune building was great. We entered the building through the fuselage of a C-47 aircraft. We walked in the darkened area past the paratroopers ready to drop into Sainte-Mère-Église’s square. We looked down into the night sky at the soldiers that had already parachuted and then had to take the step off the platform. Thankfully, for us, it was only onto another floor where we entered the rest of the museum to learn about that fateful night.
The final stop of our tour was in the small town of Angoville-au-Plain. In the small, 700-year-old church, two 20-year-old American medics treated soldiers from both sides. The pews still bear blood stains from the wounded who lay there bleeding. At one point, a mortar shell fell through the ceiling and broke tiles on the floor, but, miraculously, it did not explode. German soldiers broke into the church to capture the Allied soldiers, but quietly left when they saw soldiers from both sides being treated for injuries. Perhaps the most moving discovery was that the church’s saints, Damian and Cosmas, twin brothers who are the patron saints of medicine and pharmacy, are memorialized in two of the stained-glass windows. One other window honors the medics, while one honors the paratroopers. (The church in Sainte-Mère-Église also has a stained-glass window honoring the paratroopers who sacrificed to give them freedom.)
We also observed mile markers designating the approximate route that Patton and the U.S. Army followed during the Liberation of France. (These start outside Sainte-Mère-Église and continue over 700 miles to Bastogne, Belgium.)
We were dropped off back at the park, walked to our hotel, and then to dinner at L’Alcove with so much to think about and discuss from the day’s activities. In addition to the cathedral and the D-Day tours, Bayeux still had more to offer, so we got up early to have time to visit the Bayeux Tapestry before leaving for Mont Saint Michel. We were fortunate that Viking Cruises features the Bayeux Tapestry on its many ships, so we had learned a great deal about it already. In fact, if we had not learned much of its history, I don’t think we would have gotten as much from the visit.
First, the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry is not actually tapestry. Instead, it is a work of embroidery that measures roughly 230 feet long and 20 inches wide. The end of the work is missing but it fulfills its mission: to tell the story of William the Conqueror’s conquest of England in 1066. (The events surrounding this conquest also signify the end of Viking rule in the area.) The tapestry was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William, to showcase how important Odo, himself, was in the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry was made to hang in the Bayeux Cathedral but is now in the Bayeux Museum. Both my husband and I felt that we needed more time than the audio guide and the stream of visitors gave us, but we enjoyed the visit immensely.
And next, off to Mont Saint Michel--a trip highlight for me.
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