Posts filed under ‘Normandy’

Cow Crossing and a Medieval Abbey

Mont St-Michel is the most popular French tourist attraction outside of Paris, but like the D-Day Beaches, it was an attraction that my mom had managed to miss on all of her previous trips. So on Day 17, we woke up early and headed for new (to us) territory.

Once again, we had to leave before breakfast at the hotel started, but the lovely morning view from our top-floor window eased the pain a bit, as did the pain au chocolat at the local bakery. We were a little worried that the small-town bakery would be closed on Sunday morning, but one thing that you can always count on in France is fresh bread, every morning of the week.

So we headed west for Mont St-Michel. Just as we got our first view of the island and started to get even more excited, we were stopped…

cows in the road
…by a farmer who was taking his cows across the road to the pasture. Fortunately, I had my camera put-together and close at hand!

Mont St-Michel
A few minutes later, we were at the base of the mountain! Mont St-Michel is an island in the mouth of the Couesnon River, and it is connected to the mainland by a causeway. The causeway widens at the base of the island and is turned into a parking lot. Various parts of the parking lot are roped off at different times of the day, due to the tides. We were directed to park a little too close to the edge for my liking, but at least it was on high ground.

Mont St-Michel
The lower part of the island is a town, although it definitely caters to tourists. The narrow stone streets are full of shops and cafés, and are often packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people. We most wanted to see the Abbey and the Church, which are at the top of the rock, so we had to climb a series of staircases. Mont St-Michel is a pilgrimage site, so pilgrims who visit will climb the steps on their knees. We didn’t see any that morning, though.

At the top of the steps, we bought entrances to visit the church and abbey. The admission price included a tour, and an English-language tour was leaving about 15 minutes later, so we decided to wait for it. I’m so glad that we did, because the tour was so informative and our guide did an excellent job. I would have enjoyed the visit without the guide, but it wouldn’t have been as interesting.

View from MSM
We also had plenty of time to enjoy the view! This photo looks south, towards the mainland. The causeway is in the centre, and the Couesnon River is on the right of the photo. The land east of the river is Normandy, and the land west of the river is Brittany. Next year, plans have been made to destroy the causeway and replace it with a bridge, which will allow the water to flow more naturally. Visitors to the island will park in lots on the mainland and will be taken across the bridge on shuttles. The decision has been controversial, and our guide was worried that her business would decrease because people would be deterred from visiting.

Speaking of visitors, our tour guide told us that only about 1/3 of the visitors to Mont St-Michel actually go up to the top of the island to visit the abbey. The other 2/3 are content to stay on the crowded streets and shop in the overpriced tourist trap, which I do not understand at all! It is quite a hike, though, and visitors do have to be physically able to climb the steps. I hope that they are looking at options to create a way to the top for people that have limitations that prevent them from climbing to the top.

Seeing the church in the bright morning sun is something that I will never forget.

I took a few panoramic photos of the view from the terrace, and this is my favourite. Click here to see a bigger version.

Inside the church
Mont St-Michel was a revered abbey for a long time, but in the 18th century, many of the religious institutions in France had lost popularity, and it was closed, left to ruin, and turned into a prison for a time. In 1863, the prison closed, and in 1874, the island was designated a historic site. However, during the dark years of Mont St-Michel, much of the original splendour of the church was lost, including its stained glass, which is why the interior of the church seems a bit stark. I think that the architecture is still quite beautiful, though.

I loved the cloisters, the part of the abbey where the monks can go for a bit of solitude in nature. Our guide gave us some time to walk around the cloisters, too.

Our guide had all kinds of information for how they built the church so high on the point of the mountain, and how it was balanced and basically built around the rock. It’s quite a feat of engineering, especially considering that the oldest parts of the church were built before 1000 A.D. I should also mention that a few monks still live and work in the abbey, sharing the space with 3 million tourists each year. I cannot even imagine what that is like. We saw one of the sisters walking through the church and she seemed to be unfazed by the visitors. I suppose you get used to it fairly quickly.

We had worked up an appetite and didn’t know what we would find on the road, so we decided to grab some lunch at the bottom of the mountain—a ham & cheese sandwich and a Nutella & banana crêpe. Of course, the crêpe was warm, so we had to eat dessert first. Quite a hardship.

Not ever using a little camera has really made my self-po skills slip…I need to get back in shape.

View from Afar
We backtracked a bit to get the “faraway” view of Mont St-Michel, not too far from where we’d been stopped at the cow crossing. No cows this time…

Attention aux Moutons
…but we were warned to watch out for sheep.

And then a final parting gift from La Normandie…as we drove south, back towards the highway, I saw a windmill up on a hill. I think my mom barely got out the question, “Do you want to stop?” before I was exclaiming, “Turn here, turn, turn!” I had never seen a windmill up close before and hadn’t expected to have the chance on this trip. Very cool!


December 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm 3 comments

Farewell to Normandie

Day 16 of the 2011 European Adventure was our last day to see D-Day sites. A couple of friends had each told us that Arrommanches had a fantastic museum, but when I was researching, I found that Arrommanches had several museums. So I picked one, and while it didn’t have light-up maps on the floor (I have been wanting to go to another museum with light-up maps on the floor ever since I went to Gettysburg when I was 9), I’m glad that we ended up at the Mulberry Harbor museum.

Here’s another aspect of D-Day that I didn’t know before visiting Normandy: the Brits brought a homemade harbor to France, and that’s why the troops were able to continue advancing after the initial attacks. Churchill had the foresight to realize that they would need a major harbor to transport vehicles, equipment, supplies, more troops, etc. after the invasion. Unfortunately, the Nazis also knew this, so they guarded the northern harbor cities most fiercely. So the Brits built one. They had an incredible manufacturing industry throughout the country, and factories all over were converted into harbor-making machines. For the most part, the workers had no idea what they were making, since the top-secret venture was carried out in pieces. The pieces were then assembled into larger pieces, and when it was time invade, the larger pieces were towed toward Arrommanches. Storms destroyed much of the harbor just a few weeks after it was constructed, but replacement parts were brought in quickly. It really was an amazing feat of engineering, and one of the keys to the Allied success. And the museum on the process is really well done. After we went through the museum and watched a couple of films, we went down to the beach to see the ruins up close.

Mulberry Harbor 1

Mulberry Harbor 2

One of the classic tourist sites for Americans visiting Normandy is the American Cemetery. The Americans, the British, and the Canadians were all given pieces of land to bury the soldiers that were killed in the D-Day invasion and in the months after. As can be expected, the American Cemetery is the largest and most built up, with a huge parking area for both cars and tour buses, a large visitor centre, and several elaborate memorials.

Path in the American Cemetery
Walking past the visitor centre and towards the graves, I almost forgot that I was in a cemetery—this path has the serenity of a seaside park.

American Memorial
Of course, I remembered soon enough. The sculpture inside the main memorial where the graves start was stunning in the bright sunlight.

Reflecting Pool
The memorial also features a reflecting pool with lily pads, even more gorgeous on a day with a rich blue sky.

Of course I had seen the statistics for the number of lives lost, but you don’t fully understand until you are standing among the rows and rows of white crosses, keeping in mind that there are more plots with more crosses (and Stars of David).

More crosses

I am posting about this day all out of order—we actually did the American Cemetery before Bayeux, and then the Mulberry Harbor museum, but this order made more sense to me, topically.

Our last stop of the day was on a whim. We were heading back to Ouistreham for dinner, but knew that we were still a little bit early. I had put Ouistreham into the GPS, and instead of driving along the stop-and-go coastal highway, Lee (my GPS) took us inland for a bit, and we passed through the town of Bény-sur-Mer. I knew I’d written than name down in my notes, but I didn’t remember why, until I spied a red-and-white maple leaf flag waving on the side of the road. The Canadian Cemetery. So we stopped, of course.

It was smaller and simpler than the American Cemetery, with no tour bus parking. We didn’t even notice the gravel parking lot at first and left our car on the side of the road, but it didn’t matter. Only one other couple was walking through the grounds, and they appeared to be looking for a specific grave. The monuments were pretty, and Mom noticed that everything was written in both English and French, which made me wonder if, like the Juno Beach Centre we’d seen the day before, it took a while to get the funds together to build the memorials. Canada did not recognize its dual official languages until 1969. But that’s a story for another day.

Canadian Cemetery Graves
The graves were traditional headstone-shaped, with either a cross or a Star of David on each one, along with a name, dates, and sometimes an epitaph, too. I liked the flowers between the headstones.

Large Cross
This large cross is a memorial in the centre of the cemetery.

And of course the fleur-de-lis was ever-present, too.

Once in Ouistreham, we walked up and down the pedestrian-only Avenue de la Mer to choose a restaurant—we knew that we were going to stay far away from the mini-golf place this time! The one that we picked served 17 different kinds of mussels, so we each got a cauldron-full of them. Mine were baked with apples and camembert…for me, this is pretty much food heaven. The only thing that could have made it better was gelato, and that was our next stop. Pretty great way to spend our last night in Normandie!

December 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm Leave a comment

La Tapisserie de Bayeux

In addition to seeing as much of the D-Day sites as we could in our limited, we also wanted to visit Bayeux to see the famous Bayeux tapestry. Well, I should rephrase. My mom really wanted to visit Bayeux to see the famous Bayeux tapestry. I like museums and historical things, but I had not been yearning to see the Bayeux tapestry like my mom had. But since it was one of her main goals for the trip, I made sure to carve a few hours out of our D-Day schedule to head to Bayeux. I was excited to see the town during its annual Medieval Festival. As it turned out, we happened to be visiting during an even bigger year than usual, since it was the 1100th anniversary of Normandy.

Turkey Leg
And who doesn’t love a festival where older French men wear dress-like garments while they eat turkey legs? Fun for all!

I have never been to Medieval Times (an entertainment destination outside of Chicago), but I imagine that it is something like Bayeux during the Fête Médiévale…except, of course, Bayeux has the advantage in that the giant cathedral in the middle of town is actually authentic, as are the cobblestoned streets. Okay, it is probably not that similar to Medieval Times.

Bayeux Cathedral
The area around the cathedral was so crowded with festival things that I didn’t get any uncluttered photos of it, but even with the clutter, it’s still really impressive, right?

We were terribly hungry at this point in the day, the pains au chocolat from breakfast having worn off hours before, so we found a café a few blocks up from the main festival area, and I finally got my sandwich au Camembert. It was absolutely perfect. I can still taste it, five months later, and now I want one. Unfortunately, the only cheese in my refrigerator right now is a block of Kraft reduced-fat sharp cheddar.

Tapestry Museum
After our lunch and a short walk through town, we headed to the museum. In researching for the trip, I had visited the museum’s website to find information about admission and opening times, only to discover an 8-page PDF document of very specific rules for the museum. I was a little worried that we were going to have to endure a pat-down search to see the tapestry, but the people inside the museum were much friendlier than the PDF document led me to believe.

Unveiled each year in the cathedral during festivals, the Bayeux Tapestry is an extremely long piece of embroidered fabric that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was meant to educate an illiterate population, and made just a few years after the battle, almost a millenium ago. And it is really, really cool.

The entrance to the museum includes an audio guide, something that we usually skip when we visit museums, but it’s essential here because it outlines every one of the scenes and points out details and meanings that the average non-scholar would not see otherwise. The experience of seeing it went way beyond my expectations and I am so glad that my mom wanted to see it, or I don’t think that we would have made the trip.

Of course, several of the many rules deal with photography—specifically, that it is absolutely forbidden. But if you would like to see the tapestry, this website will take you through the entire thing.

Back in town, we wandered a little more on the way back to the car, stopping to peek in a few of the booths and to watch a few minutes of a play being staged on the cathedral lawn.

Cute kid
Even the little ones in Bayeux were into the medieval spirit!

November 28, 2011 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment

Utah, Omaha, and Grandpa

On Day 16 of the great 2011 European Adventure, my mom and I woke up early, even before our inn started serving breakfast. That didn’t matter, since we’d opted out of the 7 EUR/person hotel breakfast, anyway. We knew that every little French village has a little French boulangerie, so after a quick Google, we were off to the town centre, where we feasted on delicious pains au chocolat. The only drawback to skipping hotel breakfast was the lack of coffee. The French have not embraced the coffee shop concept, so we were left with only bottles of water to fuel our drive up the coast.

Stop #1 on our packed Day 16 itinerary was Utah Beach, the westernmost tip of the D-Day beach region. We planned to drive all the way west first, then make stops as we headed back towards our hotel throughout the day. Utah Beach was one of the American sectors of the invasion, but it was not nearly as bloody at Omaha Beach, so it is not as well known. The area is much more remote, with just a memorial on the beach until a few years ago, when a museum was built. There’s also a gift shop just across the road, where they sold neat postcards of old black & white photos, and where I spent 10 minutes trying to buy two of them. The proprietress was engaged in a very exciting phone call and had little interest in taking my money. But anyway, on to the photos of Utah Beach:

Utah Beach Memorial
The day was just perfect for sightseeing—not a cloud in the sky and breezy-warmish—but the direct sunlight made photography less than ideal. Our itinerary was too busy to come back later in the day, when I wouldn’t have to shoot straight into the sun. Fortunately, I like lens flare!

Utah Beach
Once again, Utah Beach doesn’t look anything like a battlefield anymore.

Rowe Road
All of the roads around Utah Beach (and they were truly roads, not streets…some were really lanes, not roads!) were named after men that had died in the D-Day campaign.

Next up was Sainte-Mère-Église, where U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne sailed into town just before the beach invasion began. One of the paratroopers, John Steele, was caught on the spire of the church and was wounded, but played dead during the battle. He was taken prisoner by the Germans (once they figured out that he was alive), but later escaped and returned to fighting for the Allies and survived the war.

The church has a permanent model of Steele attached to it.

Our early schedule had put us at Utah Beach ahead of the tourists, but we hit Sainte-Mère-Église at the same time as a couple of tour buses. We knew it would be a busy day, so we decided to skip the small museum in town and kept moving.

Omaha Museum
Our next stop was the first scheduled museum of the day, the Musée Mémorial d’Omaha Beach. The funny part about this trip through the beaches was that we never knew what to expect. For some reason, I had the idea that this museum was a brand-new, high-tech sort of thing, with light-up map murals and such. As you can see below, this museum was one of the first built after the war, and it hasn’t changed much.

Omaha Museum Display
The displays were simple exhibits of found artifacts from the war with explanatory postcards. I loved the awkward English translations. For example, this card about the mines uses the word “explosed.” The presentation may have been old-fashioned, but this museum was packed with information. I especially loved the letters on display—it was nice to connect with some of the personal stories. The main story of Omaha Beach is one that many Americans know quite well. At one time, I knew it extremely well, since my middle school social studies teachers were big war buffs and arranged for a theatre to play The Longest Day for us. Almost everyone hated it because it was so long, but I liked it so much that I watched it again the same weekend when it happened to be playing on cable.

The museum also featured lifesized diorama displays with mannequins. A little creepy, but retro and kind of cool. I especially liked this one, since it showed what my grandfather did as part of a communications unit. They came over after D-Day to maintain communication lines as the Allies advanced through Europe. They didn’t make movies about the communications guys, but they were an integral part of the last stage of the war. Abraham Jones Markham, my mom’s father, was one of the men who did this job.

Seeing the D-Day Beaches was important to my mom and me not only because we are history nerds who love Europe, but also because it’s a connection to her father and my grandfather. He passed away 11 years ago, and it’s still hard for me to think about him without getting emotional. My grandparents lived in Tulsa, OK, and my mom and I lived in central Illinois and then Chicago after I turned 3. We didn’t have family nearby for most of the time I was growing up, so the few times a year that we saw my grandparents were always precious times. I adored my grandparents. I would sit on Grandpa’s lap in his blue recliner, eating plums before dinner while we watched Jeopardy, until I was much too big for it, I’m sure. He didn’t talk about himself very much with me. I had an assignment in 8th grade to interview a veteran, and I’m thankful for that, otherwise I might not have ever heard him talk about his time in the war. He was quiet, but always seemed so strong to me; he was sick my entire life, but never seemed frail until the very end of his life. I’m sure that his wife and children knew his faults just as well as his strengths, but to me, he was perfect. I never saw him do anything wrong, unless you count sneaking a piece of chocolate that was strictly against his diabetic diet. I loved him dearly, and I only wish that I’d had time with him when I was older.

So being at Omaha Beach with my mom was a very special moment. I didn’t want to cry all the way through our busy day, but after I had time to reflect, I understood what a blessing it was to be able to see the Normandy Beaches and to be able to make the trip with my mom.

Omaha Beach Sculpture
Omaha Beach itself has two memorials at St-Laurent-sur-Mer, right on the same strip of beach. This is a sculpture called “Les Braves” by Anilore Banon, a French artist. Both memorials are dedicated to the Americans that liberated the region. The three sections of this sculpture, which was commissioned for the 60th anniversary in 2004, represent “The Wings of Hope,” “The Rise of Freedom,” and “The Wings of Fraternity.” Mom and I both thought it was a beautiful tribute and I found it to be very moving. Although quite a few people were milling about, everyone was very quiet and respectful.

Omaha Beach Memorial
This is the first memorial, built on street level, above the beach. I’d seen this monument before in photographs, and seeing it in person was so compelling. The text at the top is in French, with the English below: “The Allied Forces landing on this shore which they call Omaha Beach liberate Europe – June 6th 1944.”

I still have one more D-Day museum and the cemeteries, but they will have to wait for another post.

November 8, 2011 at 12:19 am 1 comment

O Canada

I love Canada. Most of you reading probably know this. If you stumbled across this blog recently, you can catch up with my feelings about Canada by reading some of the entries under “Canada” in the right sidebar. To say the least. So in planning the itinerary for this Europe trip, I was so excited that we would be in Normandy on July 1st and 2nd. We wanted to see some of the Canadian sites anyway, so of course it made sense to see them on the 1st. Even in Europe, I would get a Canada Day! So I wore my “True North Strong and Free” tee-shirt and once we were done with the British sector, we headed for the Canadian area.

Maple Leaf

The Americans and the British were quick to memorialize their efforts in D-Day on French soil, but it took much longer for the Canadians. Without the advantage of proximity that Great Britain has and the military budget that the United States has, Canadians had to raise their own funds, and it took quite a while. In 2003, Juno Beach Centre was finally opened at Courseulles-sur-Mer. From my research, I knew that it existed, but it wasn’t until we arrived in Normandy and I picked up a brochure and saw the billboards, that I realized that this museum would be a big one.

Juno Beach Centre

Inside, we paid our admission, and the cheerful Canadian staff wished us a Happy Canada Day and commented on my shirt. I expected her to ask where I was from, and I was tempted to just say Toronto to avoid the explanation, but she wasn’t that interested in me, I guess.

The metal-clad building has a modern design with five sections. From the air, it looks like a stylized take on the maple leaf. I thought it was quite cute how the first area of the museum was an introduction to Canada. Canada and I are already pretty well acquainted, but I enjoyed the overview of what things were like for the country just before the war erupted. My mom enjoyed the large map on the floor, and she had me walk the route that I drove last summer so that she could see it. Since the museum was so new, the information was presented very well, and we both learned a lot.

Once we were through, we took a bit of time to explore Juno Beach and the lovely town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, which was set up like Honfleur with a large bassin in the centre.

Canada and France
The flags of my two favourite foreign countries, flying side by side. A real treat for a girl who loves flags and photographing flags.

Juno Beach East
Juno Beach was so lovely that I knew that I had to take panoramics to try to capture the serenity. It wasn’t what I expect from a battlefield at all. See this one larger here.

Juno Beach West
The above photo was taken looking east, and this one was taken looking west. Larger photo here.

The inukshuk is a symbol known very well in Canada, but not as well in the rest of the world. They were originally built by Inuits and other First Nations in the northern stretches of Canada, possibly as navigational markers, but their usage has spread recently. Since the inukshuk was used as a symbol of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, seeing one in Normandy brought back a flood of excellent memories for me.

This Sherman DD tank sank in the D-Day invasion off of Juno Beach, and it was recovered in 1970 and placed in Courseulles-sur-Mer, just off the beach. It now serves as a memorial.

We were both pretty exhausted after our full day in Normandy, so we checked into our hotel (Hotel Le Canada!) in Hermanville-sur-Mer, and took power naps before dinner. I am usually responsible for finding restaurants when we eat out at home, but without Yelp, I was at a bit of a loss. We ended up driving to Ouistreham, which seemed to have a lot of variety and since we wanted something simple, we tried a beachfront place that had a large patio and also mini golf. I don’t usually eat at restaurant/mini-golf combos, but since it was in France, I thought it was worth a shot. The food wasn’t great, but it was okay. I had a galette (savoury crêpe) that was too thick and Mom had a pot of mussels:

We’d seen the British museum at Pegasus Bridge, but we hadn’t seen the British beaches yet, so our post-dinner ice cream cones also gave us a chance for a little walk on Sword Beach. Just as I was surprised by the serenity of Juno Beach, I was also surprised that Sword Beach is now a typical summer beach, with sand castles, kids in swimsuits, and beach volleyball games. Ouistreham has a ferry to Great Britain, so it’s a popular destination for D-Day tourists, as well as families on seaside getaways.


After the beach, we strolled down Avenue de la Mer, which is a pedestrian-only street for a couple of blocks and is lined with tons of restaurants, all of which looked better than the mini golf restaurant that we chose. Mental note for the next night!

October 23, 2011 at 12:32 am 3 comments

Pegasus and Hillman

After our roadside picnic, Mom and I got back into our Corsa and continued on towards Ranville and the Pegasus Bridge Memorial and Museum. We had a day and a half to see the D-Day Beaches, which wasn’t nearly enough time to see absolutely everything. Almost every town has its own memorial, and many towns have small museums, too, to tell the stories of their own occupations and liberations. So instead of trying to see everything, I decided that we would see a few things from each of the British, Canadian, and American sectors. Since we’re Americans, and since the American sectors are the most built up, I decided that we’d spend most of our second day at different American sites. That left our first half-day to split between the British and Canadian areas. Since we were coming from the east, we started with the British and Pegasus Bridge.

Pegasus Bridge
Pegasus Bridge is still a working bridge, but it isn’t the same structure that bridged the Caen Canal in 1944. The new bridge was built in 1994 and the old bridge (pictured above) was saved and is now part of the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

In American history classes, we always focused on the beach landings when we discussed D-Day. They were the bloodiest parts, best suited for Hollywood movies and to capture the short attention spans of 8th-graders in Mr. Broccolo’s history class. Before our trip, I didn’t have much concept of the events that occurred in the hours just before the beach landings, including the taking of Pegasus Bridge.

In order to cut off German counterattacks and the arrival of relief troops, the Allied Forces isolated the Normandy beaches by destroying most of the bridges across the Caen Canal and River Orne. Of course, they didn’t want to box in their own troops either, so they sent British air troops in gliders (that is, aircrafts without engines that were dropped from other aircrafts to secretly land in enemy territory) to take and defend Pegasus Bridge until the troops that stormed Sword Beach could reach them. It’s a fantastic story, and one that the small museum told wonderfully well.

This cannon is located just outside the museum with the flags of the Allied Nations.

Poppy Wreaths
One thing I learned from this visit was that the British share the Canadian fascination with red poppies as memorial flowers. I had to explain to to my mom. I think that the average American has probably heard “In Flanders Field” before, but we don’t have the same strong association for red poppies that Canadians and, apparently, the British do.

After Pegasus and Hillman, the next stop on my list was the Site Fortifié Hillman. Unfortunately, I only had the road (rue du Suffolk) and the closest town (Colleville-Montgomery), and the vague reference in my notebook: “can go in many remaining defensive positions.” We drove to the town, but I wasn’t even sure what we were looking for, so I was about to give up when I saw a tiny sign that said “Site Hillman” with an arrow. We had stumbled onto rue du Suffolk after all.

We found the parking lot and wandered onto an open, grassy area, where a group of British schoolchildren were being lectured about not littering while they had their lunch. One of the teachers was desperately trying to get someone to eat the last apple. I almost volunteered to take it.

So my mom and I just kind of wandered around some ruin-ish things, and then we stumbled upon this:
Bunker 1

The stairs were narrow, but there weren’t any signs or ropes indicating that we shouldn’t walk down them, so we did. I touched the walls, read the plaque, and we poked our heads around some corners. We found something that may or may not have been a huge water tank, and then we found a portal that we could put our heads through.

Head through a portal
Photo op!

I thought that it was pretty cool, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. The tiny area seemed more like a cement version of a WWI trench than anything that I’d seen associated with WWII in the movies. I had expected a gun battery somewhere, but I didn’t see anywhere that could have housed a huge gun, and besides, what would huge guns have done underground. Regardless of the confusion, I thought the experience had been really neat. Mom agreed, and we were just heading up the stairs when a cheerful French guy appeared and asked us if we would like to see inside.

My mom replied and said that we’d already been inside, and that it was very interesting. He asked again if we wanted to see inside, and my mom said again that we already had, and then he said, “No, you haven’t been inside, because I have to unlock it.” And he motioned for us to follow him.

He ducked down one of the small “hallways” off the main “trench” area and pulled open a heavy door, entered an alarm code, and fiddled with several locks. Okay, I guess we hadn’t seen the inside yet. Another couple who had been wandering around followed us inside and the cheerful guy, a volunteer with the local historical society that was working on keeping up and restoring the bunker, gave us an impromptu tour.

It turns out that the Site Fortifié Hillman was a German bunker. It had been built during the occupation, obviously, and it was an extensive underground, fortified site of German operations. It contained living and working quarters for the commander of operations in the region, as well as his staff.

Inside the Bunker 1
Inside the Bunker 2
I was really interested in the desk in this second photo. It was the station for getting messages in and out of the bunker during the war. Telegrams, maybe? I’m not sure of the right terminology, but it was really neat.

Our guide spoke quite fast and he used a lot of vocabulary that I didn’t get in Mme Bourg’s high school French classes, like “generator” and “commander” and “forces,” so Mom had to catch me up a few times. I did understand a decent amount, though, and I was able to ask a question or two in French and thank him for showing us around. So when we emerged, we somehow started with the woman in the other couple, and she was pretty shocked that she thought we were American. Somehow, between my mom’s good French, my stumbly French, and us speaking to each other in English occasionally, she thought that we were German. Still haven’t figured that one out, but we all laughed about it. She was Parisian, but had married a Londoner and had lived in London for years. They were biking the D-Day area because her husband really wanted to, and she was just along for the ride.

I didn’t ask our Parisian-Londoner friend for her name (I’m terrible with getting names when I talk to people), but I did snap a photo of her as she pedaled away.

Bunker 2
Hard to imagine this country as a war zone on such a beautiful day, isn’t it?

I really enjoyed our random tour of the bunker, and I’m glad that we were in the right place at the right time! The guide told us that the restoration of the bunker had only begun in the past couple of decades, because the occupation had been such an awful experience for the townspeople. After it was over, no one wanted to preserve a place associated with so many bad memories. They used the area as a junkyard and it had to be “rediscovered” before it could become a historical site. A group of veterans, like our guide (not of WWII, he was younger than that), had taken interest in the site, for the sake of history, but it hadn’t really taken off like some of the other more popular tourist sites because they didn’t have any funding. Who wants to fund the place where the Nazis worked, right? But at the same time, it still has historical value, and I’m glad that a group of locals took enough interest in it to preserve it so that my mom and I could wander into it. Very interesting.

October 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm 3 comments

Morning in Rouen

Here begins the part of the trip where I can’t possibly fit a whole day into a single post. Since neither of us had been to Normandie before, Mom and I wanted to fit as much as we could into every day. Fortunately, I live for making and executing insane trip itineraries. So on Day 15, we rose and shone early, got ready to go quickly, and left our closet-sized hotel room to hit the road for Rouen.

Wait, let’s go back to the closet-sized hotel room:
Hotel 1
Guys, this is the whole room. The only part that isn’t visible is a tiny nook next to the door which contained a tiny desk. I lived in 4 different dorm rooms in undergrad, all of which were at least twice as big as this room. We were fine, but please note that the room contains three beds. I have no idea how three people + luggage could stay in this room without killing each other. And let’s take a look at the bathroom:

If you take out the shower, it was exactly the size of an airplane bathroom. When you add the shower, it only makes it the size of an airplane bathroom plus a tiny shower. The bathrooms on the commuter trains in Chicago are twice as big, and they don’t even have showers. Because they’re on commuter trains. Still, definitely not the worst bathroom I’ve had in a French hotel, and at least it was clean.

So it was off to Rouen, then! Rouen is famous for its Notre Dame Cathedral, for being the old capital of Normandie, and for burning Joan of Arc at the stake. We were most excited about the cathedral (who’s surprised?), but since we’d been to Chinon and seen the place where Jeanne began her military career, it only seemed fitting that we see the place where her life was ended.

The drive to Rouen was confusing and the streets in the Old Town were tiny and scary for us silly Amer’cans, but fortunately, the cathedral is massive, so I never felt lost. Among all the tiny streets, though, we didn’t get much of a view until after we parked the car in a garage and emerged from the stairwell to see this:

Cathedral 1
WOW. Easy to see why Monet took up a residence here to paint a series of this cathedral, right?

Cathedral 2
I think I liked the south façade best, probably since we were getting some good light in mid-morning on this side.

Cathedral 3
The west façade is most famous, and is also where the main entrance is located, but it was all shadowy. If we weren’t on such a crazy schedule, I would have switched our plans around to allow us to see this side in late afternoon, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the time. So I bought postcards. And shot lots of exposures so I could make an HDR image.

The cathedral is also undergoing constant rebuilding. The city of Rouen and its treasured cathedral were heavily damaged during World War II bombings. Seven bombs fell on the church in April 1944, and another fell just before D-Day. The oldest part of the church was burned, and the bells melted. Restoration was still ongoing in 1999, when the building was damaged again in a storm. Even before the 20th century, Notre Dame of Rouen has had bad luck with weather. Many of the sculptures that once adorned the exterior have been moved inside for preservation, and much of the stained glass has been destroyed, with hopes of being replaced someday.

With quite a bit of clear glass (instead of stained), the cathedral gets more natural light than most other old cathedrals. I liked the look of the golden light streaming in amidst the dark stone.

Richard the Lionheart chapel
My guidebook had told me that one of the Rouen Cathedral chapels contains the heart of Richard the Lionheart, King of France. None of the signs inside said anything about Richard’s lionheart, but we’re pretty sure it would have been in this chapel, which was far more ornate than the others and was also locked.

Stained Glass
Here’s one of the few stained glass windows in the cathedral.

Grand Horloge
After we felt like we’d sufficiently seen the cathedral, we walked down Rue du Grand Horloge to see this, the Grand Horloge. It is an astronomical clock from the 16th century, now mounted over an archway on this pedestrian street lined with shops.

Our destination was the Place du Vieux Marché. It is still a working market, and is also home to this modern church. I didn’t like the architecture in person, but now that I’m looking at this photo again, I think it’s kind of neat.

Place du Vieux Marche
The cross on the right marks the spot where Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake. Unlike ringing the bell at Chinon, we did not take photos of each other reenacting Jeanne d’Arc here.

The market was starting to pick up, so we decided to join the locals and pick up some sustenance for later. Normandie is the birthplace of Camembert, my favourite cheese in the world, so we tried to buy a wedge of Camembert from the busy cheese counter, but the owner didn’t sell slices of it, just full wheels. We didn’t want that much, since we wouldn’t have access to a refrigerator anytime soon, so we settled for a wedge of Brie. The market didn’t have any bakers, but I’d seen a few boulangeries on our walk down Rue du Grand Horloge. Plus, a good rule of thumb is that, when in France, a delicious boulangerie is never more than a 10-minute walk!

As we were leaving the market, though, I saw it: a whole table full of macarons. Jules and Christina got me absolutely hooked on macarons this year, and I was dying to try my first authentic French macarons. My mom doesn’t always spring for sweets, but I was determined. We needed to try these macarons.

The macaron-sellers were incredibly sweet, asking us about our trip and complimenting my French even though I’m sure it didn’t deserve any compliments, and they happily sold us a few of their products. We picked up a baguette on the way back to the car, and we soon discovered that when you are driving on tiny streets closed in by tallish buildings in the old part of Rouen, the GPS cannot pick up a signal. So getting out of Old Rouen took some time, but we were finally back on the road, heading towards Basse-Normandie.

When we were almost to D-Day country, we stopped at a roadside park for a lunch so delicious that I can still taste it. The Brie practically melted on my tongue and the baguette was fluffy and perfect. But the macarons, oh the delightful macarons, really stole the show. We split each of the 4 different flavours, and at first bite, I think I sold my mom on macaron magic. If I ever get back to Rouen, that table had better still be there.

October 3, 2011 at 12:07 am 1 comment

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