Part 1 of The Ultimate WWII History Road Trip: Normandy

Part 1 of The Ultimate WWII History Road Trip: Normandy
Utah Beach

Don’t forget to check out the introduction and planning process detailed in my last blog post!

Our trip began with a Home Alone style panicked run through St. Pancras train station to make our Chunnel Eurostar train.  We didn’t realize that boarding supposedly closed 30 minutes before departure, and we were initially stuck in a super long line at passport control.  Fortunately, one of the station workers recognized that our train was leaving in 15 minutes, and ushered us and some other passengers into the much shorter Business Class line.  We quickly got a train exit stamp in our passport, my first one (!), before settling into our super comfortable Eurostar seats. Our stop was Paris, and the train was crazy fast.  In fact, we were only in the Chunnel for 30 minutes, and arrived in Paris in two and a half hours.  The speed made it pretty treacherous to walk, but it didn’t stop us from getting some wine in the club car.  I’d like to point out that I ordered the whole thing in French….which means that I pointed to wine, said ‘oui’ about three times, and ‘au revoir’ when I left.  Master of French, y’all.  The train time went by super quickly, and we were in Paris before we knew it.

Chunneling our way to France

Chunneling our way to France

We had about 80 minutes to kill before our regional train, which was fortunately still running despite the strike scheduled for that day, so we went to a Parisian brasserie by the train station for dinner.  After an overpriced Croque Madame and something called chicken breast supreme, we wandered through the train station trying to find our platform.  While we were trying to identify our spot, our attention was drawn to a guy playing and singing at a nearby piano.  The station doubles as a shopping center, and there are random pianos scattered throughout.  It wasn’t his playing that caught our eye; it was the two guys doing interpretive dance to the music.  I’m pretty sure they were on something because they repeated a process of taking off their shirts before putting them back on, all while wiggling in time with the tune.  There were at least five cops who came over to talk to them, but they all walked away without doing anything.  C’est la vie?

Our platform number was announced, and we were amazed at the size of Car 2 before realizing that the 2 meant second class.  We settled into our cushy train seats that looked like they were out of the Orient Express and dozed a bit on our way to Normandy.  We were supposed to get into Caen before 11:00, but we kept unexpectedly stopping and occasionally moving at a snail’s pace.  The announcements were all in this garbled French that even the lady next to us (who had a portable CD player BTW) couldn’t understand.  El had to keep messaging Drew, who was going to pick us up, that our train was delayed and we didn’t know when we’d arrive.  Super annoying. Drew is one of Elliot’s best friends and is currently stationed with the Air Force in Ramstein, Germany.  He and his wife, Christa, along with their family members and newborn baby girl, were in Normandy for the D-Day celebrations.  Since Drew’s a pilot, his friends were participating in the flyovers that would be occurring throughout the weekend, and he shared their travel plans with us so we could join.  I hadn’t seen Drew and Christa for almost three years, so it was great to catch up with him on the hour drive to our apartment hotel at Grandcamp Maisy.  The hotel was nice and clean, and we slept like the dead given the late hour.

Day 1: Omaha Beach, the American Military Cemetery at Normandy, Pointe du Hoc, and Grampcamp Maisy

We woke up at 8:45 the next morning and joined Drew and Christa’s families for breakfast at their apartment.  We got to meet their baby girl, Adelyn, Christa’s dad, and Grandpa Jack, who retired from the National Guard after 46 years and apparently wanders everywhere.  Drew’s parents were also there, and it was great to see them again.  While we planned out our day, we munched on eggs, baguettes, homemade zucchini banana bread, and pieces of THICK delicious bacon that were like bacon yoga mats.  While we ate, we caught up and thumbed through a booklet of D-Day events that would be going on over the course of the next few days.  There were all sorts of activities and festivals including a “vintage” talent show where you could only perform music from the 40’s, a 1940’s themed dance, parachute jumps, a “USA BBQ”, and several truck parades.  We’d already seen several of the re-enactors walking around in their military dress, so we were pretty stoked for what was to come. We piled into their rental van and drove the short distance to Omaha Beach.

Les Brave memorial on Omaha Beach

Les Brave memorial on Omaha Beach

The weather was just like how it was in Saving Private Ryan, which seemed to enforce the fact that we were on hallowed ground: overcast with a light breeze and about 60 degrees.  There were these large panels that gave the history of St. Laurent Sur Mer, the town in which Omaha Beach is located, and flags of the Allies standing tall in the sands.  In addition to a large monument on the beach, there was a memorial actually in the water.  It was called “Les Braves”, and it was accompanied by a poem in both French and English.  The whole area was very peaceful, and it was hard to imagine the sheer scale of the invasion.

American Military Cemetery at Normandy

American Military Cemetery at Normandy

We piled back into the clown car and drove the (thankfully for Doug who was squeezed in the trunk) short distance to the American Cemetery at Normandy.  Located on top of the hill that the Allies had to take from the Germans, the cemetery appropriately overlooks Omaha Beach below.  The burial area is this sprawling manicured green lawn that is filled with perfectly symmetrical rows of marble white tombstones, many in the shape of a cross or topped with the Star of David.  For the unknown buried there, their tombstone simply reads “Known only to God”. Walking down the rows was a very humbling experience, and we took care to read as many names as we could.  We saw the headstone of General McNair, who died before war’s end, and several people from Illinois and Minnesota.  Drew looked up all our last names in the visitors’ center book and found that four Farrells are buried in the cemetery.

In addition to the graves, there is also a large chapel and a memorial that was set up similar to the WWII one in DC and the Lincoln Memorial: semi-circle set up with these little alcoves that have battle maps and dedications on the walls.  Inside the semi-circle was a statue of a man rising up, as if going to heaven.  Occasionally, recorded bells would begin ringing, giving the cemetery an even more somber air. After looking out onto the beach, we made our way back to the Visitors Center to see the exhibitions. There weren’t a lot of artifacts, but there were a number of panels that gave the timeline of  the war and several personal stories.  As you leave the main exhibition area, you pass through a hallway where the recorded voice of a woman reading the names of the dead is playing.  The hallway empties into a room called the Garden of Sacrifice, where there are glass panels that tell the stories of those who died, including that of a British female paratrooper who was captured and tortured (and eventually executed), but still refused to give the enemy information.  Hers was just one of many similar stories.

The bunkers at Pointe du Hoc

The bunkers at Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc was our next stop, to see Drew’s pilot friends make a flyover over the cliff, and we stopped to get sausages and frites from a stand along the way.  The sausages were fatty, delicious, and piled high with peppers on an entire baguette, while the frites were amazing as always.  Once at Pointe du Hoc, we walked towards the cliff where a monument to the Second Ranger Battalion who took the then-German occupied defense.  This was the 100-foot cliff that was scaled by the Rangers while under intense enemy fire.  The sheer physical and mental strength required for something like that is just extraordinary.  What was also incredible was that fact that nothing, aside from the monument and some barriers that were erected, seemed to be touched.  There was still barbed wire around areas, and none of the massive bomb craters had been filled in.  There were also bunkers you could go through, but I got a little claustrophobic b/c of all the people and left that to Elliot.  There were several lookout spots along the cliff, with the best view granted to the site of the monument.  From there, you could see the peaceful sea below, and the height of the cliff became magnified the closer you got to the edge.  With the sun shining, it really made for a beautiful spot.  Drew was in touch with his friends in the planes, and soon enough we had six military planes doing flyovers above Pointe du Hoc.  Their wives had joined the group at this point and were both really nice; I’ve gotta say, if Elliot were a pilot, I’d be constantly shitting my pants in nervousness.  The pilots did a few runs (no pun intended from the last sentence) past us, and every time it was super freaking cool.  I’m not a big flyover enthusiast, but even I was getting super into being so close to the planes.  Bad Ass Americans in action!

Liberation Parade in Grandcamp Maissy, Normandy

Liberation Parade in Grandcamp Maissy, Normandy

Flyover!

Flyover!

We made our way back to Grandcamp Maissy, where a military vehicle parade was taking place along the marina.  There were all sorts of period jeeps and tanks filled with French men and women all dressed in American military uniforms.  The people in the crowd, including many women who were all dolled up in vintage dresses and 40’s hairstyles, cheered as they went by.  There weren’t too many people on the streets, but the sun was out and there was an air of celebration.  After the parade was finished, people started setting up for the American BBQ to take place later.  A woman was trying to get an old school microphone set up and play 1940’s era music, but she kept getting interrupted by bagpipers who were warming up right next to her.  Not sure why there were bagpipers, but I digress.

We made a quick stop at Carrefour to get some baguettes and Camembert cheese to snack on, as well as beer, croissants for Grandpa Jack, and more of the bacon stick breakfast stuff.  We ordered some pizzas from a nearby restaurant and settled in for a night of wine, beer, and cards.  While people were playing euchre, a game I have tried many times unsuccessfully to learn, I got to watch over little Adelyn.  I’m not the most confident with little babies, as much as I love them, so I had to be reassured a few times by Christa that Adelyn wouldn’t be completely traumatized for life by my childcare abilities.  After a few rounds of euchre, we switched to Phase 10, which is a game that neither Elliot nor I knew how to play.  I caught on pretty quickly, whereas the rules were frustrating El; that naturally led to everyone wanting to play Phase 10 more.  Because we’re a sick lot :D.  We didn’t end up heading to bed until almost two; during that time, Doug polished off a bottle of wine which he, the next day, blamed on an invisible helper.

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Any Jack bottles in that camp?

Re-enactment camp at Sainte Mere Eglise

Re-enactment camp at Sainte Mere Eglise

We had a hearty breakfast again the next morning before heading to a small town to find a field where a parachute drop would be occurring.  There were some conflicting signs that pointed us in multiple directions, so we got out while Drew and Elliot parked the car and started walking towards where we thought it would take place.  We passed through this adorable French village that was like something out of Beauty and the Beast: stone houses, colorful shutters, and tons of bright beautiful flowers.  We finally found a police officer who, through Doug’s translation, told us that we were still two kilometers from the drop.  The sun was getting hot, and we had a newborn with us, so we turned around to head back to the car.  Even though we weren’t watching from the field into which they jumped, we still got to see the paratroopers do their drop, which was pretty freaking sweet. We went to the nearby town of Sainte Mere-Eglise, which was having a huge celebration commemorating Liberation Day.  Just outside the town was a massive reenactment camp that was filled with camps of military vehicles, tents, and people in period military dress.  Since it was mid-day, most of them were eating a picnic lunch and drinking wine, which didn’t quite seem to gel with the setting.  A few camps had artifacts from the era, and one even had a table with four empty Jack Daniels bottles.  Well played, folks.  After seeing a tank almost take out a girl, we went into the town to avoid losing any limbs ourselves.  Yes, you read that right; there were tanks operating around the camp area.

The "paratrooper" hanging from the church tower

The “paratrooper” hanging from the church tower

Saint Mere-Eglise was all decked out in American/UK/Canadian flag banners and messages of “Welcome to our Liberators!” written in English on shop windows.  The large square in the middle of town was lined with food stalls billowing smoke smelling of sausage.  A large stage was set up at the front of the square, where there was at present a vintage talent show going on.  A French guy, with clearly good intentions, was singing the Marines and Air Force anthems…badly.  The crowd seated before him still clapped and cheered though, so at least his dignity remained intact.  I don’t think they could tell any difference anyway.  One of the most noticeable things in the square was the paratrooper dummy hanging from the church roof.  During the invasion, a paratrooper got stuck on the roof and pretended to be dead.  He was cut down after two hours by two German soldiers, but before that was signaling German movements thanks to his vantage point.  I guess every year on the anniversary of the invasion; they remember him by adding the paratrooper dummy. The group split off for a bit, and Elliot and I walked around the town, bought our usual magnet, and watched the French girls using Google translate to talk to the American military members there.  Some things never change.  The town wasn’t very big, so we soon were sitting in the Liberators’ Cafe having a Leffe Blonde and enjoying being American.  A bit later, we caught up with the rest of the group (including Grandpa Jack who happened to meet the Mayor of Sainte Mere Eglise in the bathroom(? I seriously loved Grandpa Jack) and made the short drive to Utah Beach.

Utah Beach

Utah Beach

In contrast to Omaha Beach, there was a lot of barbed wire that served as a sort of barrier to the water. Not that that mattered, because the tide was so far out that we could see beach combers a few hundred feet away. You could still walk down onto the beach, but you’d be walking for quite some time. The land around the beach was a lot flatter than Omaha’s, but it was just as peaceful. After checking out the memorials and a random bunker in a field, we decided against going into the Musee de’Disembarquement (I know, me forgoing a museum is like Cookie Monster turning down a plate of snickerdoodles) and drove back to the apartment to play cards and relax before dinner. Dinner was at the nearby Restaurant de la Mer, where I tried snails for the first time.  They were actually pretty tasty, even without anything on them.  They were part of a larger (and by larger I mean planet-sized) seafood platter that was shared amongst the table.  They were running a prix fixe meal, so El and I both had leg of lamb with dried apricots and beans in vinaigrette as an appetizer, beef in a wine sauce and oxtail stuffed veggies for our main, and I had a local cheese platter for dessert.  The majority of the cheese manufactured in this area of France is soft, with Camembert being the most popular I had seen.  The food was good, the company was great, and the atmosphere by the water perfect.  Despite Drew having to leave in the middle of dinner to meet the rental car guy (he needed a replacement b/c the original car had a massive bubble in the tire), it was a great meal eaten in a very French 2 1/2 hours fashion.  After some more wine and card playing back at the apartment, and the occasional shirtless meathead (no, not Elliot or Drew) walking around the common area, I was pretty exhausted by 12:00 and went to bed, leaving the boys to play cards for a little while longer.

Day 3: Gold Beach and William the Conqueror’s Castle in Caen

Tank parade in Arronmanches

Tank parade in Arronmanches

The town of Arronmanches, getting ready for D-Day celebrations

The town of Arronmanches, getting ready for D-Day celebrations

Despite being pretty tired that next morning, I went for a run along the water, down the pier, and into the town of Grandcamp Maissy.  The smell of seaweed wasn’t exactly complementing the run, but it was still a scenic jog nonetheless.  Grandcamp Maissy is a sleepy little town, and residents already were out picking up their daily fish as I ran by.  I passed a bakery along the way, so after showering Elliot and I went back for pain au chocolat and chocolate éclairs for breakfast.  I’m sure you don’t need to be told how delicious they were….BUT THEY WERE DELICIOUS. We met up with the Ebner clan and drove through Sainte Marie du Mont, where the Band of Brothers house is located, and past several D-Day Museums (there were seriously like a billion) to Arronmanches, the site of Gold Beach.  Since it was D-Day, the whole town was packed with people and cars, but we somehow miraculously found a parking spot close to all the action.  Much like Sainte Mere-Eglise, the atmosphere was lively and people were walking through the crowded streets with beers in their hands.  We witnessed a few parades occurring, including one with tanks and another that was made up of just a small marching band.  Since this was where the British and Canadians landed, there were all sorts of people wearing the popular-in-Britain poppy pins to honor the dead.  El and I walked around the town a bit and got a croque madame (I was obsessed by this point), chicken nuggets, and hot from the fryer frites to enjoy while leaning against a fence, watching the people around us.  We found a pub, sat down and had a beer, and watched the celebrations in the street.  One thing we noticed at a few places is the number of people walking around with baguettes.  It’s so stereotypical French, kinda like striped shirts and berets, but it’s seriously an accurate one.  We met back up with the group by the very crowded artillery gun in the center of town, and piled into the car to go to the Caen airport.  We were able to get our car rental a day earlier than booked, and I have to say the people at Sixt were beyond friendly and helpful.  That is one French stereotype that I’m glad didn’t live up to expectations.

What's left of William the Conqueror's Castle

What’s left of William the Conqueror’s Castle

After getting our car, we met back with everyone in Caen City, the home of William the Conqueror.  Caen was a lot more cosmopolitan than the towns we’d been visiting the past few days, and there were a lot more chain stores like H&M about.  We climbed the hill to walk along the location of William the Conqueror’s Chateau (the original now mostly just stone outlines in the ground), which afforded us incredible views of the cathedral, city, and nearby countryside below.  The weather was again beautiful (the days would start out a little chilly and gloomy, but the sun would come out in full force in the early afternoon), and there were all these French teenagers making out on the grass around the Chateau.  Man, in America teens have to settle for movie theaters or outside the mall… Christa and I got some macaroons (lilac and vanilla ones for me) before we all sat down to dinner at a nearby restaurant called The Tourist, which was fortunately better than the movie that bears its name.  It was pretty standard French fare, but I did have a steak with a pretty decent Roquefort sauce and frites.  After dinner, we went back to the apartment for some more Phase 10 before heading to bed and getting ready for Epernay the next day…

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