Continuing the Normandy pilgrimage with Mavis Davis
The tour director, FIGJAM, was not so distracted by the thought of his many paramours back home, that he could not choose excellent local tour guides. Suzanne was a wealth of knowledge about the local area and the history of some of the most dramatic and world-changing events ever experienced, taking us to some of the key locations involved.
A must-see is the museum of the D Day landings at Arromanches. Inside is an excellent display detailing what happened when 156,000 US, Canadian and British troops landed on the coast of France to change the tide of World War II. The artificial port constructed for the landings is in plain view in a calm ocean, belying the chaos of 70 years ago.
Our pious pilgrimage group was struck into silence by the ethereal beauty of the nearly 10,000 Italian marble crosses and Stars of David that appear to emerge directly from Omaha beach; just as the young men did on D Day 1944. The youngest was 15 years old.
The graves they mark, face west in the direction of home. We were very sombre contemplating the many young men buried here; tellingly 45 sets of brothers, including two of the four Niland brothers upon which ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was based. In another sad story, we heard of almost an entire generation of 22 young men completely lost from Bedford, Virginia.
Our guide Suzanne explained that many churches in Normandy were destroyed by the Germans during WWII except for the steeples which they used as observation towers. She also explained that there were three types of Frenchmen during the war: 1. Collaborators, 2. The Resistance and 3. French working for the Germans under duress. This gave us a lot to think about so much so that even ‘Chatty’ was quiet and pensive.
On a brighter note, in Caen, Normandy, the giant statue replicating the photo on the front page of VJ Day edition of the New York Times, is a tangible rendition of the relief and exuberance of the end of another, long world war. The ‘kids’, the youngest members of our pilgrimage group (in their 50s) were swept away by the emotion evoked by this image and replicated the famous kiss standing next to the statue.
An earlier invasion
Bayeux, also in Normandy near the D Day landings, was spared from bombing. It is a picturesque town with the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame as a focal point.
Bayeux is famous for the 70 metre long and half-metre high tapestry depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminating in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The members of our pilgrimage group lingered at the many gruesome parts of the tapestry including the very obvious arrow straight through an eye. Corinne, the local guide, explained that “’Arold was hit in the heye by the harrow”.
The Domesday Café nearby, although pretty, didn’t somehow appeal to me for a cuppa due to its portentous name. The magnificent plane tree planted nearby in 1797, was definitely worth a visit.
Caen in Normandy has many sights worth visiting including the Men’s Abbey and Basilica of St Etienne (St Stephen) in which William (formerly known as the bastard) the Conqueror is buried. Apparently DNA testing of the leg bone no longer connected to the thigh bone proves that William the conqueror is definitely related to Betty Windsor and therefor the current William.
The area is famous for horse studs and equestrian activities as well as calvados. The local calvados is nectar of the gods.
One must immerse oneself in the culture, customs and local produce of the region, especially when visiting one of the most beautiful towns in France: Beuvron-En-Auge. The Princess and I thought it would be only churlish of us not to contribute to the local economy by purchasing and, consuming immediately, the tasty local calvados made with pears and the kick of an angry horse.
The day had turned very cold and drizzly so we needed copious amounts of calvados, rich in therapeutic and preventative benefits, for medicinal purposes only, of course. We slept well that night, in our pleasantly appointed room in Caen.