Hello traveling companions,
After Paris, we rented a car and set out for Normandy to visit some of the most anticipated places on our itinerary: Bayeux, Mont Saint-Michel, Honfleur, and the D-Day beaches and memorials.
Bayeux was our base for exploring the sites of World War II’s D-Day invasion and the Battle of Normandy. It is also a short drive from Mont Saint-Michel, the historic abbey, monastery and village perched high on a rocky outcrop in the English Channel.
Honfleur was on the itinerary because it’s the birthplace of Impressionist art. We wanted to see the legendary light and the quaint harbor that inspired young Claude Monet to take such a radical new approach to painting.
Normandy was also a bit of a back-to-roots visit. My mother’s maiden name is Sage. The Sages likely came to England in the wave of settlers from continental Europe who traveled through Normandy and crossed the Channel to England as part of the Norman conquest in the 11th century.
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In addition to being our base for exploring Normandy, Bayeux has its own unique charms.
Many of Bayeux’s medieval structures remain intact and in use.
The picturesque River Aure runs through the middle of Bayeux.
The Aure has been an integral part of the town’s life for centuries.
As in many European towns, a church or cathedral provides a convenient orientation point. The spires of Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux are the first thing travelers see when approaching the town.
Bayeux Cathedral is a massive structure.
We ate tasty crepes in the Pomme Cannelle, a little sidewalk cafe next to the cathedral, recommended by European travel guru Rick Steves.
Almost every European town has a weekly market day. In Bayeux it’s a festive and crowded occasion.
Bayeux’s main “claim to fame” is the Bayeux Tapestry. This remarkably preserved, 230-foot-long embroidery dates from the 11th or 12th century. The exact origin of the work is uncertain.
In comic-book-like panels, the Tapestry tells the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The Duke of Normandy, then William the Bastard, prevailed over Harold in the Battle of Hastings. He has been known ever since as William the Conqueror. The history of western civilization was changed forever.
Bayeux is also home to the “Path of Remembrance,” a memorial garden created by Reporters Without Borders and the town of Bayeux. A marble panel for each year since 1944 lists the names of war correspondents who were killed that year. It is a moving and unusual memorial.
Bayeux is the site of the British military cemetery, a D-day museum, and many other reminders of the Battle of Normandy. More on that later is this post.
Visitors to Mont Saint-Michel see it first from miles away as a small mountain looming above a coastal plain — some of the flattest terrain in France. This is a telephoto view from the visitors parking lot a mile-and-a-half from the island.
Visitors travel to the island from the parking area by shuttle bus.
Once on the island, labyrinthine passages and stairways lead through the town and around the abbey.
It’s hard to photograph the structure from within it. A statue of the Archangel Saint Michael sits far atop the lofty central spire.
Interesting details await around every turn, such as this statute of Joan of Arc at the entrance to a chapel. Joan believed that the Archangel Michael (Saint Michel), in a vision, urged her to liberate France.
The crush of tourists in the narrow passages of the town can be maddening.
It was low tide when we visited. At high tide Mont Saint-Michel is completely surrounded by water. A helicopter circles the area when the low tide starts to turn, looking for pilgrims making their way across the flats on foot. It is said that the tide comes in “like a galloping horse.”
To illustrate the magnitude of the tides, this is low-tide at Granville harbor, on the same bay as Mont Saint-Michel. We stopped at Granville on the way.
Boats of every size and description sit high and dry, stranded until the next tide comes in.
Both as a lover of Impressionist paintings and as a photographer, I went to Honfleur looking for Monet’s light.
This is the harbor where Monet created “Impression: Sunrise,” the painting that rocked the art world and gave the new movement it’s name.
I saw the light at different times of day play with the colors and shapes in the harbor, creating something new each time.
Many buildings in Honfleur are tall and skinny because the authorities created a tax structure based on the width of the buildings.
Everywhere I turned, another photo popped into view.
I can’t be sure I was seeing what Monet saw, but there was something unique about the pictures I was getting.
Elsewhere around the town, half-timbered walls added another visual dimension.
The lines and angles of the buildings are not quite square, giving many of them the look of a hand-drawn illustration in a storybook.
This shot was taken from a high vantage point over the town. The white church on the right is Saint Leonard’s. We were staying in a quaint flat on Rue Saint Leonard, near the church. A soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs ran through my mind during our stay.
This little chapel is in the hills overlooking the town. Sarah’s exploring the area.
Art is everywhere in Honfleur. This metal sculpture was outside a gallery. I can’t resist a selfie when I see my reflection!
Honfleur’s Les Maisons Satie pays tribute to avant-garde musician and composer Erik Satie. He was born in Honfleur in 1866.
Using personal headphones, stories from the composer’s life, accompanied by Satie’s music, are automatically cued as the visitor moves through multiple rooms. Many of the stations are interactive. It is an interesting, fun, and enlightening experience.
The Musée Eugène Boudin is dedicated to the Honfleur artist who first urged young Claude Monet to get out of the studio and paint what he sees in the world around him. The museum houses paintings by Boudin and by later artists who painted in and around Honfleur.
Honfleur is on the English Channel at the mouth of the Seine. Across the river is the industrial seaport of Le Havre, which eclipsed Honfleur as a harbor and allowed Honfleur to remain largely as it was in the 19th century. For that I am grateful.
D-Day and the Liberation of Europe
This trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. Both our fathers served in the Second World War. If there was ever a “good war,” that was one. Hitler unleashed a regime of horror that had to be ended. We wanted to see what remains of it firsthand, and in some small way to honor the millions of ordinary people, soldiers and civilians, who sacrificed and suffered there. We had visited WWII museums and memorials all over France and in Amsterdam, but in Normandy we found the actual tools, effects, and scars of the war, still in place.
All over Normandy, memories of the war are kept alive by artifacts that remain to this day, such as this part of the artificial harbor assembled in the days following D-Day.
We visited Point du Hoc on the English Channel in Normandy. On D-Day, U.S. Army Rangers had to scale these cliffs under fire. Their mission was to take out a German observation post and gun battery.
Bomb craters from the pre-assault “softening up” are still visible at Point du Hoc.
This German observation bunker was one of the Ranger’s targets…
…as was this artillery emplacement.
Inside one German bunker is a memorial listing the names of Rangers killed in the invasion and the Battle of Normandy.
The Nazis had created the “Atlantic Wall” to make any attempt at invasion very costly. This is what remains of a bunker overlooking Omaha Beach.
Omaha Beach was the site of some of the most courageous and costly actions by American troops. They had to take out the German positions on those cliffs. More than 3,600 Americans were killed or wounded on this beach during the initial assault. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” begins here.
These are remains of Port Winston, the artificial harbor in the English Channel, assembled immediately after the invasion.
This is the beautiful and solemn American Cemetery overlooking the English Channel in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. It is the final resting place for 9,387 Americans who died on D-Day and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy.
One is easily moved to tears at this powerful site. Every American who can should come here to honor the young heroes who died in the liberation of Europe.
Every Cross or Star of David marks the grave of an ordinary American who made an extraordinary sacrifice. This is the grave of Broadway Sims, from Tennessee. His name made me want to know his story, and a reader of this blog responded, so CLICK THE PHOTO TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BROADWAY SIMS. A website about him will open in a new window.
It wasn’t just Americans who are honored in Normandy. This is the British Cemetery in Bayeux. In a supreme irony, nearly 1,000 years after the Norman conquest of England was launched from this coast, British soldiers returned here to help liberate France.
Pegasus Bridge, site of the first casualties on D-Day. It is no longer in use but has been reassembled near the original site and restored as a memorial. The British squadron that captured and held this critical bridge had landed silently in three 30-man gliders and took the Nazis by surprise. After the war the bridge was renamed “Pegasus” because that was the insignia on their uniforms. The flags of every nation that participated in the D-Day invasion are flown.
2014 was the 70th anniversary of D-Day. All over Normandy are signs, billboards, posters, and drawings in shop windows commemorating the event, in addition to permanent memorials.
The gratitude of the French for their liberation, however painful it was, is still alive. On the way to Mont Saint-Michel we came upon another German defensive bunker overlooking the harbor in Granville. Like the others, it was left in place as a permanent memorial and reminder. We wandered around it, talking. A man about my age must have overheard and recognized us as Americans. He approached and said something to me in French, most of which which I did not understand. We had an awkward non-conversation, neither of us understanding much of the other’s language. I talked about my great sympathy for the people of Europe who suffered so in WWII. We in America have never experienced such widespread devastation and day-to-day horror inflicted by a foreign force on our own soil. Then he said to me, in accented English, “America good.” I said in return, “France good.” I extended my hand to shake his and he took it in friendship.
The German bunker at Granville.