I’ve just returned from my three-day trip to Normandy, and I have so much to write about. This post will be the first of multiple (most likely 3) parts. Seatbelts everyone: we’re about to dive into some major history nerd territory.
First, a little background:
I consider myself to be a lover of stories and ancient peoples, but I wouldn’t call myself a history buff. I prefer personal memoirs and sociology to textbooks and battle plans . So, the majority of my World War II knowledge is focused on the Holocaust and the daily life of civilians during wartime. Both of my grandfathers served in the Pacific theatre, but neither has ever been too keen to discuss their time overseas, and I suppose I’ve never pushed them to do so.
All that changed when I learned last Fall that my great-uncle was one of the 156,000 men who landed on the Norman coast on June 6, 1944 to liberate France from the Nazi occupation. I couldn’t believe that no one in my family had ever bothered to tell me such an important story about one of the most famous days in modern history. Now, with a personal link to D-Day, I became much more interested in the events that took place on that fateful day, and decided to plan a trip to the north of France.
I booked a hotel in Bayeux, the first town that was liberated by the Allies after D-Day and a culturally rich area in its own right. It was a great place to be; I spent my first day exploring the tiny village’s ancient sites.
Most of the surrounding area was pretty much destroyed and rebuilt after the war. How strange to think of European villages without Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, and Renaissance plazas! Bayeux, though, was hardly touched by the multiple bombings, so the main cathedral and several other buildings are still standing. Lucky me!
I went to the Notre Dame cathedral to start my sightseeing. What a beautiful place. Even though it was freezing cold, windy, and cloudy outside (it hailed later that afternoon!), the inside was flooded with light. The architects in 1077 definitely understood Normandy weather and took advantage of what little natural light was available! Yes, you read that date correctly; the church was built in 1077 over an ancient Roman sanctuary, and prominently features both Roman and Gothic styles in different sections of the building. It will never cease to amaze me how ancient people were able to calculate how to erect such monuments without computers or even a reliable ruler.
I walked next door to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a massive embroidered wall hanging that also dates back to the 1070s. The Tapestry is basically a 230-foot long comic strip that tells the story of how William the Conquerer won the Battle of Hastings. It’s kept behind glass in a darkened room, and visitors can walk along it while listening to an audio recording that describes the action in each panel. I selected the French recording, and I’m proud to say I understood nearly all of it!
Just outside of the museum, I hopped on a little tourist train that rode through Bayeux and showed lots of neat monuments. I generally prefer to walk on my own to familiarize myself with a new place, but it was raining and windy, so I was willing to part with two euros for a mini tour. It really did give a good overview of the town, but that’s not hard to do, seeing as there are only 16,000 people and most of those seem to be Anglophone tourists. Honestly, I’ve seen more baseball caps and Northface windbreakers in the past three days than I’ve seen in the past four months-Normandy is still definitely a tourist destination even in the offseason.
At the suggestion of the hotel concierge, I went to dinner at Pate à Pat, a cozy (read: tiny) galetterie right beside the cathedral. I nommed on a a salad and a galette complete-mushroom, ham, cheese, and egg wrapped in a buckwheat crêpe. Of course, I had to have dessert, too, which was a café gourmand with two tiny caramel crêpes, teurgoule (a sort of rice pudding) and a brownie with crème anglaise. Delish. My dinner came with a show in the form of a group of Englishmen beside me, whose laughs got louder and louder as they emptied their steins. I love eating alone and just listening to other diner’s conversations; it makes for great entertainment.
I left the restaurant in search of breakfast for the next day and passed by a small group of obvious tourists on the sidewalk. At that moment, I heard one of the women say the three most beautiful words in the English language: “bless his heart“.
Needless to day, I. Had. A. Moment.
I couldn’t help but stop her and ask where she and the rest of the group were from. The lady replied that they were all recent retirees from Texas, and I got a little teary as I explained that I hadn’t heard a southern accent in several months and it warmed my heart to hear one now. I got way too dramatic over such a silly thing but it was just really nice to hear a bit of home! The whole group asked me all about my experiences abroad, and we just stood there on the street for a few minutes talking. The lady even gave me a real hug-another thing I haven’t experienced in months. You never realize the things you miss until they suddenly pop up out of nowhere. It made my day.
I headed back to my hotel to hit the hay-I had a big day planned for Tuesday! Check back tomorrow to read about my tour of the D-Day beaches.