Memorial Day in Normandy (Day 5)


At 5:30 AM the alarm went off, we checked out of our Paris hotel, and we kicked the vacation into overdrive. We were headed for Normandy to stay for one night only in the Chateau de Pont-Rilly. In hindsight, we did this part all wrong. We should have left Paris Sunday afternoon and headed for Normandy then, allowing two nights to really enjoy the beautiful chateau.

But we didn’t. C’est la vie! That’s right, I said it. Anyway, Memorial Day was an adventure from the jump. We took the metro to the SNCF train station and hopped a train that was a 2-hour ride direct to Caen. In Caen, we rented a car from Avis (sorry Shawn). This was not a fun experience. The staff were perfectly courteous and pleasant, so I can’t complain about them, but the car was a long walk from the actual rental agency, difficult to find, not easy to operate, and it was so old that it started with an error code right out of the gate. Also, when we arrived, a couple from Canada were inside the office blustering about getting a flat after being given a car with an error code in Paris, so I was terrified that we were going to break down/blow a tire/run over a goat and land in a ditch in the middle of nowhere in the French countryside.

Damian, not so much. He was looking forward to driving stick around a new place, and I think he was envisioning adventure while I was envisioning all four wheels flying off. Regardless, we broke out my Uncle Bruce’s GPS, entered the coordinates for Arromanches, and lit off into the French countryside. And by “lit off” I mean puttered onto the highway, because this car had barely more horsepower than a mule.

Our plan was to visit the Normandy sites memorializing the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. What better way to honor the brave men and women who served our country, and who continue to serve, than by paying tribute to key battlegrounds on Memorial Day? A lot of other Americans had the same idea. Before I continue, here is a very brief (don’t yell at me, history buffs – I’m going barebones here) snapshot of the history courtesy of our guide book. This is a countdown to D-Day, when the Allied Forces launched Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944.

1939 – September 1st. Hitler and his fascist followers invade The Free City of Danzig, starting WWII.

1940 – Germany’s Blitzkrieg overtakes France, dividing the country in half. Nearly the whole continent is suddenly fascist.

1941 – Japan (ally to Germany) bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7; the US enters enters the war, joining the Allied forces.

1942 – German and Japanese forces are weakened by 3 key battles at Stalingrad, El-Alamein, and Guadalcanal.

1943 – George Patton and Bernard Montgomery command nearly 150,000 American & British troops who land in Sicily and work their way north through Italy.

1944 – June 6. D-Day. Allied Forces launch Operation Overlord. On June 5, 150,000 troops board ships and planes. They do not know their destination, as it is top secret, until they are underway. At 6:30 AM on June 6, Americans spill from troop transports into the cold, rough sea waters of code-named Omaha Beach amid bad weather and following a failed prep bombing. Despite extremely heavy casualties from the German defenders, by day’s end the Allies have taken several beaches along the Normandy coastline. It is a victory, but one with a very heavy price.

1945 – The British and American troops finally cross the Rhine in the spring while the Soviets take Berlin. Hitler shoots himself, and Europe is free following 6 years of war.

We began our exploration of the historical sites in Normandy by visiting the cliffs and gun batteries near Arromanches. The massive guns that still sit high up on the hillsides were terrifying to behold. They’re old and rusted now, but the thought of the level of destruction wrought by these beasts was really disturbing. I stood close to one and wondered what it would have felt like if the giant gun was trained at me. It blows my mind that our troops faced down those monsters and won.

Wildflowers grow around them now, and the greenery is lush. The juxtaposition of such beauty and such horror was disconcerting.

We moved on to the American Cemetery. It was closed to walk-ons, but we could see the never-ending fields of white gravestones. Hearing the numbers of casualties was mind-blowing, but seeing the gravestones stretching on endlessly really drove the point home. Omaha Beach was close by, and we walked down the side of the cliff along a steep path to reach the beach itself. There were no sunbathers, no boardwalk, no typical beach revelers. This is a historic site, and instead we met travelers like us with thoughts turned to the invasion and the men who lost their lives.

We took a break from our reverie to find lunch at a local restaurant called La Trinquette. We decided to make this our big meal of the day, hoping to relax and enjoy the chateau later rather than heading back out for a big dinner. Le menu offered fish soup for me, salad for Damian, followed by the catch of the day, which was a buttery fresh fish served in a beurre blanc with vegetables. For dessert, Damian enjoyed a creme brulee with coffee, I enjoyed a plate of fromage and coffee. It was a nice respite.

Afterward we headed for La Pointe du Hoc. Here we experienced the German bunkers, built of solid concrete and surrounded by barbed wire, dark and foreboding and sunk underground for defense. We explored them, and frankly, they gave me the creeps. Everywhere we looked we saw massive indentations in the ground where bombs had exploded. To remind us of the importance of this site, the holes have not been repaired, although grass and small bushes do grow in them now. Some were large enough that, if you stood in the middle, you would find the hole taller than you.

Plaques with information about the battleground were everywhere. We read them all. I learned much, including the fact that our troops used rocket-launched ropes to scale the cliffs. When I first saw the cliffs, I wondered how they managed to scale them. The Germans never expected an invasion on this front, because they felt the cliffs were steep enough to be impregnable. They certainly appeared to be. But the rocket-launched ropes allowed the invaders to climb.

A staggering 50,000 American troops were killed in this offensive.

After Pointe du Hoc, we made our way to Sainte-Mère-Église. Many paratroopers landed here – one American paratrooper landed and dangled from the town’s church steeple for more than two hours. There is a replica of this paratrooper hanging from the steeple today. We visited this 700-year-old medieval church. Inside we discovered two modern stained-glass windows which were made in remembrance of the war.

Exhausted from the travel and the emotionally-draining experiences of the day, we found a little market where we bought fruit and cheese, then we found a bakery to buy bread and sweets, and we struck out to find the Chateau de Pont-Rilly and stay put for the night.

Getting to the chateau proved to be a challenge. The GPS took us down several dirt roads, and I was certain we were going to blow a tire in the middle of the woods. Finally, we drove past the back entrance to the chateau. We turned around, and I held my breath as we made our way back down all those dirt roads in search of the front entrance. We finally found it, and the drive up to the chateau was spectacular. The place is enormous, with rich history, and the owners have 10 male peacocks (who strutted their stuff for us) and a black swan as well as various other animals.

We met the owners, and the lady led us to our room. This room was the most gorgeous historical bedroom we’ve ever stayed in. 12-foot ceilings, marble fireplace, beautiful high windows overlooking the lush landscape, not to mention the biggest bathroom I’d ever seen. When I saw it, I vowed to take a relaxing soak in the massive tub.

The owner was nice enough to offer us some plates and wine glasses to borrow, and we sat at the room’s table near the windows to enjoy some red Côtes du Rhône wine we’d brought from Paris along with our fruit, cheese and bread. I’m glad we stayed in – it gave us a little time to enjoy the spectacular chateau.

Because the next day we were up before the rest of the house. We skipped the breakfast (sigh) and scarfed down some protein bars on our way to the high-speed train and our next stop: Provence….