Travel Notes: Normandy Beaches

I had a lot of fun blogging last summer’s travel adventures, so I figured it would also be fun to take a look back at some past trips. I’m starting with some notes on my 2010 France and Spain trip; this post is one of several in that series.

It’s been awhile since I did a “flashback” post to some of my past travels, but I thought I’d pick it up again and try to crank out a few before the semester gets too crazy. And this is a good place to start, since it’s one of my very favorite travel memories – the Normandy Beaches. I knew it would be a powerful experience, but it was a very powerful experience. We had a great guide and – to use a completely cliche phrase – he really made history “come alive” for us.

One of the cool things about our visit was that we didn’t just visit the beaches; we also visited some sights inland. This meant we learned a fair amount about the role that paratroopers played in the invasion (cue me immediately reading Band of Brothers once I got home, then buying/watching the ten-part miniseries, and then becoming obsessed with Damian Lewis). Anyway, we started inland at Sainte Mere Eglise, a town in the paratroopers’ drop zone. We visited the Airborne Museum there, and we also saw the cathedral where one paratrooper got caught and hung limply for a few hours, pretending to be dead (I believe the Germans figured it out eventually and took him prisoner). The town now has a replica dummy hanging off their cathedral (you can see it below, in the picture on the right). Tres tacky, non?

Next we visited a little village, Angoville-au-Plain, where two medics set up a makeshift medical center in a church and took care of many wounded soldiers during the first few days of the invasion. One chilling thing was that some of the church pews are still stained with blood – a sobering detail to notice. The church’s windows were all bombed out during the war, and over the years, they’ve slowly been replacing them with beautiful stained glass designs – although they still haven’t been able to afford to finish the project, so a few windows are still open.

After visiting the church, we headed out to the beaches. Our first stop was Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five beaches the Allies landed on. Our guide told us that at Utah, everything went more or less according to plan, and there was much less resistance here than at Omaha Beach.

We next visited Pointe du Hoc, which I had never heard of before, but which is actually quite fascinating. Pointe du Hoc is a clifftop location where a bunch of German guns were located (and which consequently the Allies needed to capture). In order to capture the area, the rangers who landed there basically had to scale a cliff while German guns were pointed down on them. I cannot even fathom how brave you’d have to be to face something like that. The other interesting aspect of Pointe du Hoc is that it is filled with gigantic craters. Seriously, I can’t emphasize enough how large they were – pretty amazing to see.

Next, we headed to Omaha Beach – it probably goes without saying, but this was a powerful experience. I’m not going to attempt to describe it much, but our guide spoke about the landings there in a way that still gives me chills and makes me sad. One thing he said that continues to stay with me is that many survivors, wracked with grief and guilt, later said they would have rather died on that beach with their fellow soldiers than live on (even if that meant never getting married, having kids, and so forth). Unimaginable stuff.

Our final stop of the day was the American Cemetery. The thing that struck me most about the cemetery is that it was so peaceful – it’s right by the water, and you can hear the waves lapping against the shore. They couldn’t have picked a better spot. And as I imagined they would be, the rows and rows of stark white crosses were a powerful sight to see.

And that was our day on the Normandy Beaches – and it’s really not overstating things to say it was one of the more memorable ones of my life.

2 thoughts on “Travel Notes: Normandy Beaches

  1. Very powerful stuff. I have always wanted to visit Normandy one day. The closest I’ve gotten to see it is in Saving Private Ryan. I can only imagine how horrific that scene was. Great photos.

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