Throughout this summer, Normandy has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy which began on 6 June 1944. We happened to be in the Department at the end of July. Many of the main festivities were over but even just walking or driving anywhere near the landing beaches one could not help but stop and remember. Pausing and reflecting on so much history and so much destruction really brought home just how lucky we are and how grateful we should be to so many whose lives were lost or altered forever during those dreadful days 75 years ago. I cannot deny it was moving beyond belief just to be in this part of Normandy this Summer.
These pretty streets withstood the bombings, the tread of army boots and the occasional tank shell. I am sure if the walls could talk they would have many tales to tell. But here they are still standing, in all their glory or decay, they are beautiful. But the story could have been so very different.
I was not expecting such incredible displays of gratitude all around. In many of the towns, especially those most affected by the fighting, nearly every lamppost held a specially made flag honouring specific WWII Heroes. In some places they were British, in others American or Canadian, and in others French. I read every one I came across, if I was driving I slowed to a crawl to take in the name, the photo, the country and I silently thanked each one by name for everything they gave for our freedom. One couldn’t do anything but read and look; every name, every face, and these are just but the tiniest fraction of those involved.
In this car park it was the Canadians who were honoured.
In Lion-sur Mer, a small seaside town, we walked through the streets for hours. Past majestic houses still standing tall and others wearing their pride for all to see.
The impressive Mairie had flags all around.
But perhaps the most moving feeling of all was standing on Sword Beach and looking out across the Channel towards England. British forces were predominant here and at Gold during the landings, while Canadians led at Juno and further west at Omaha and Utah, it was the American forces who led the way forward.
After many minutes of silence just staring and thinking, we eventually turned and walked back away from the sea and towards the town. Once again I found myself marvelling at the architecture that still stands strong today, and I also could not help but think that this has to be one of the prettiest façades for a public loo. Don’t know what it was like inside, but the outside is quite impressive!
We walked back past pretty houses, old stone walls, some well kept and others having fallen into need of some TLC.
Next we headed towards Caen where the battle for the city after the D-Day landings continued until the August of 1944. As a result there was a vast amount of damage to the city.
We were sitting in the town centre, enjoying a morning coffee, when we found ourselves looking across at this wonderful old property and its ancient timbers. After finishing our drinks we left the little café and strolled across the street to take a closer look.
There was a large poster on display, showing the structure ‘before and after’ in 1944, a remarkable contrast to the real building standing just alongside. One could see that all the buildings next to it were destroyed, and how they had been replaced by non-descriptive mid-century structures.
Amazingly, the church survived.
And once again there were the flags, everywhere, criss-crossing the streets.
The city itself is captivating, lively, buzzing, historic and yet also modern. I felt it was rather cosmopolitan. We rented bikes, those ones you see on the side of the road that you pop in your credit card and pay all of €1 for an hour of use (and a whopping €400 deposit, sadly necessary I am sure), and away we went. Boy, did we have fun, whirling through the narrow pedestrianised cobbled streets. Bikes are allowed, cars certainly are not and therefore people amble in the middle of the road! It was cocktail hour and everyone was enjoying balmy weather in the mid 30’s, and to be frank it was quite an effort to not take out any victims by mistake!
Having returned the bikes we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner, outside under the stars. A couple passed by in a WWII army jeep, it had no roof and was just as it would have been. They did a tour of the square and everyone voluntarily cheered. Then they stopped, parked on the pavement and came in for an after-dinner drink. We chatted with them and found out they had bought the vehicle and restored it without changing anything except those necessities needed to make it legal on todays roads. The couple were French and proud of their city; they were also extremely grateful for all the allied forces had done for them.
After dinner we strolled back through the square and again the centre was festooned with flowers and boards with posters depicting so many details from those distant dark days.
It was in every way a trip to remember, and one that provoked much thought. We cannot change history and perhaps we will never learn, but I was so so pleased to see that everywhere so much effort had gone into remembering and honouring.