I didn’t rush the return to my normal travel routine after the fun in the Dordogne. I traveled to Paris and spent more time with Royce and Natelee checking out a few new places not on my typical Paris itinerary (Montparnasse Tower, the Peninsula Hotel’s rooftop bar L’Oiseau Blanc). I also got the chance to connect with Emily and Dave, friends from Washington, D.C. who were passing through Paris on their way to Provence.
When I wasn’t visiting with friends, I was trying to work out a semi-rational itinerary to get from France to Croatia, Doha and then Nepal by mid-October.
Before I could thread that needle, though, I got an email from my sister that derailed my intended travel schedule. She’d discovered that we have a relative buried in a small World War I cemetery about 2.5 hours north of Paris. Since I was in the neighborhood, she wondered if I’d take a picture of the headstone to help fill out that branch of the family tree.
To really put the pressure on, she also sent a list of 20 other people with relatives in the cemetery who had requested that somebody take a picture of the headstone.
Now, I’m fortunate to have a lot of time on my hands these days and even more flexibility with how I use it. As a result, it became hard to tell myself that I had somewhere more important to be when I thought about this long list of people hoping for documentation of their dead relatives.
Two days later I was at the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery outside of Souchez. I’ve never experienced the side of the Great Wars in Europe before. It was moving to roam the cemetery as I worked through the list of names thinking about the sacrifice represented by each of those headstones.
Once I was in this mindset, I decided to change things up even more drastically. I’d always wanted to visit Normandy, which is the site of the D-Day beaches and some of the best WWII museums on the continent. What better time than now? I canned the trip to Croatia and continued north for a tour of the Normandy coast.
I started with Utah Beach, the western-most of the five D-Day beaches and one of two attacked by American forces. Then came Pointe du Hoc, a cliff-top gun installation that was the site of a daring but successful attack by American Rangers who scaled the 90-ft cliff walls with grappling hooks. 70 years later, the entire point remains scarred with massive bomb craters from the air and sea bombardment that pounded the German positions in the hours leading up to the June 6, 1944 invasion.
Omaha Beach, which saw some of the most devastating D-Day fighting, was next in line. I found it incredibly difficult to envision the brutality of what occurred at “Bloody Omaha.” The physical indications of the violence that took place there are long gone, leaving only broad white beaches stretching to the horizon. The horrors of that particular war seemed especially out of place in that setting and their foreignness to my daily existence left me with little way to relate.
It was easier to appreciate the reality of the D-Day suffering when faced with the thousands of headstones at the nearby Normandy American Military Cemetery and Memorial. The stark power of row upon row of silent crosses readily attested to the carnage wrought on the beaches below.
From there, I stopped by Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, which had been the responsibility of British and Canadian troops. The harbor at Gold Beach still contained large sections of the artificial port (called “Mulberry) that was constructed immediately following the invasion and that played such a significant role in the success of the Allied liberation of Normandy.
In between the visits to the D-Day beaches, memorials and museums, I made quick stops in Bayeau and Le Havre. In Bayeau, I visited the impressive Battle of Normandy museum and the Bayeau Tapestry, a 210 ft long tapestry woven in the 1070’s to commemorate William the Conqueror’s victory in the Battle of Hastings.
The trip to Normandy was markedly different from my predominately recreational travels so far this trip. In the end, it was a poignant and rewarding visit to some of the most consequential sites in modern history.