A somber, reflective weekend in Normandy (Part 1)

For those of you who don’t know, Remembrance Day is 11 November in Canada. It is Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of WWI and the day we remember the men and women who died in the wars to keep us free. In the UK, they commemorate this day on the second Sunday in November, and it is called Remembrance Sunday. Not in Canada, in Canada, the day is too important to be swept off to the weekend, and to work through 11 November. So, I applied to Sophie’s school for special consideration to pull her from school so we could commemorate this solemn day.

Remembrance Day was on a Monday this year. It will be on a Wednesday next year and a Thursday our last year in the UK. So if we ever wanted to pilgrimage to a Canadian war memorial like Juno Beach for Remembrance Day, we figured this would be the best year for it so as to miss the least amount of school and work.

We took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth on Friday night. We landed in Normandy at 7am on Saturday morning. It was still dark, nothing was open, it was cold, and we were hungry. We eventually found a bakery open to grab a few pains au chocolate.

Then we headed east and the first thing we encountered, as the sun was rising, was Pegasus Bridge.

Pegasus Bridge is important to me and my family because my grandfather was in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which was a part of the British 6th Airborne Division, who liberated this bridge. (However, my papa wasn’t a part of D-Day, he came a couple weeks later as reinforcements, so he himself wasn’t a part of the liberation of this bridge, it is just emblematic of his time in the war).

There is a picture of my grandparents at this bridge in 1974 when they came to Normandy for the 30th anniversary of D-Day. I love that we have a matching photo.

My Papa died only 8 months ago, at the age of 96. So this entire trip is very moving, and I feel he is with me.

After our little stop at Pegasus Bridge, we continued on east. There is a memorial museum to the Airborne at Pegasus Bridge, but it wouldn’t be open for hours. We planned to return.

We went to Honfleur, a beautiful little port famous for its artists. It turns out, that because it was Saturday morning, there is a huge farmer’s market spanning blocks and blocks amongst the medieval buildings. We had so much fun going up and down these stalls, sampling the wares, and buying a few treats.

After an hour or two or walking around here, we hear the familiar alarm of Sophie’s Dexcom telling us she’s going low. I was about to reach into my bag for some of the candy I have there but she remembered about 2 stalls back they were selling homemade caramels. We figured why not, shouldn’t that be a perk of a travelling diabetic? Eric quickly ran back and bought a few pieces of freshly-made caramels. We had no idea how well a caramel treats a low (or not) — it is mostly sugar but it is also a high fat content, which slows the absorption of sugar. But we weren’t too worried, as we were about to head to lunch.

Me resting my legs and Sophie eating her sugar.
Sophie in Honfleur after lunch

After our beautiful morning in Honfleur we headed back to the Pegasus Memorial Museum. Here, we learned a lot about the 6th Airborne Division and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. In case you’re curious as to the exact relation:

The 1CPB fought under the 3rd Parachute Brigade
This is the original sign placed by the Airborne on 20 June 1944. This is the sign my grandparents are beside in the photo above.

After lots of learning, and crying, we left the museum. Our hotel was in Bayeux and seeing as we’d only slept a few hours on the ferry, we were ready to turn in. Of course, it was hard to find a place for supper, but eventually we got some pizzas and called it a night.

Sunday morning brought sleeping in then a visit to the Bayeux Cathedral.

The cathedral is a remarkable building, mostly spared by WWII. We went in, but it was Sunday Mass. Unlike some tourists, we actually respect other peoples’ religious ceremonies. There were tourists walking around in their hats, taking photos of Holy Communion… I mean come on people!!!! Whenever you walk into a church, even if it’s not your denomination, remove your hats out of respect. And don’t take photos of the clergy or anyone performing religious ceremony. Be respectful. I should not have to say this out loud- yet here we are…

We didn’t manage to get photos but we did manage to light one of the special votives they had for Remembrance in the cathedral. (The candle had a poppy on it).

So then we headed back north to the beaches. We decided to go see Omaha Beach and Point du Hoc, American landing beaches that Eric and I hadn’t seen before. The Americans treat their beaches much differently, but we’ve tried and can’t find a way to put this into words. Touristy? The French are certainly aware of the way the Americans are and they are trying to capitalise on it- much more roadside tourist traps (mini-museums for high entry fee and low reward, in some farmer’s barn). However, the beach itself is impressive. Point du Hoc is even more impressive- it is the cliff the commandos/rangers scaled and claimed at the beginning of the movie Saving Private Ryan.

At Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach
Point du Hoc is riddled with explosion craters from the shells the Navy sent on to the cliff to give cover for the boys about to scale the edge.
The cliff at Point du Hoc
Sophie in a Nazi bunker at Point du Hoc.
The infinity pool at the American cemetery

The American cemetery was huge and beautiful. Crosses row upon row. However, it was all roped off. We couldn’t walk up and down the aisles and read the names on the crosses. I found this upsetting, especially this weekend. To me, part of ‘Lest We Forget’ is saying the names of the dead. In Canadian war cemeteries, there is always a large monument at the front that says ‘Their Name Liveth Forevermore’. So, I suppose that is what I’ve been taught and I value, so it was disappointing to me to not be able to read and say the names of the War Dead. Though, in classic ‘American’ fashion, the grass was just perfect and that was clearly the look they were going for. I would have much preferred a muddy path up and down the aisles between the crosses showing that people have visited the graves and shown their respects.

The American cemetery near Omaha Beach.

We then decided to visit a newer looking museum we had passed called the ‘Operation Overlord’ museum. We thought it would be very American-centric and a possible tourist trap like some of the roadside museums, but we thought we’d take a chance on this bigger-looking one.

It turned out great. It was a museum about all of D-Day and spoke readily and heartedly about other Allied countries’ involvements. Then it was a large collection of things found in the area since the war by farmers and locals; everything from Jeeps and motorcycles to bomb shells and helmets, papers and uniforms. There was a lot of Nazi things too, simply from being found in the area.

Lastly, after the Overlord museum, we went to Arromanches-les-Bains, where Gold Beach is, a British landing beach and the location of the floating harbour (named Mulberry Harbour or Churchill Harbour in some places). This floating harbour was just huge, and built in mere days by the Allies after landing on D-Day so that larger Navy ships could tie up and unload supplies for the troops who were still quite busy in battle. Much of the floating harbour is still there.

That’s Sophie and Eric in the very middle. You can see floats both near are far in the distance.

I was so physically exhausted from the day, my legs would not carry me further and I could not go down on the beach. I sat on a bench near the beach while Sophie and Eric explored a bit.

Me waiting for them in front of the beach.

Well that was 2 of our 3 days in Normandy. Our last day was Remembrance Day and Canadian-centric. It turns out that this is already quite long, and I have a lot to reflect on the most amazing Remembrance Day ever, so I’m going to do-so in a second post (probably still today, as I have 3 hours still before our ferry to England leaves). I just want to keep my feelings and thoughts of this day contained all in one.

But that doesn’t make the earlier part of our weekend any less amazing. Pegasus Bridge will always be such a memory, but the towns of Normandy and American beaches have made an imprint as well.

Stay tuned for my next post…

3 thoughts on “A somber, reflective weekend in Normandy (Part 1)

  1. We did find the American-Centricity a little over the top …but we were able to walk amongst the headstones freely…se did find the German Cemetery overwhelming in it sombre tone …but Juno and the cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer were the emotional highpoint of our visit there ….we stayed in a B&b in Basly run by Alain de la Barre who was our preparatory guide each day we were there (he is a Montrealer )in addition our second visit in two years to Vimy …my Great Uncle is on the North Wall….i would love to go again and visit more battle sites …Glad you enjoyed your tour …David Little,Pickering ,ON

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  2. Oh I meant to mention ….although he passed in 2010(i believe) Jan de Vries of the 1st Parachute lived in Pickering and we had some contact …he was a wonderful fellow

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