Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Normandy, part une

With the four day weekend thanks to All Saints' Day / Toussaint, we packed up and left for Normandy on Friday evening. Knowing how hard (impossible!) it would be to drive the whole seven hours in one stretch, we stayed the first night in a hotel in Le Mans, host to the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race since 1923. Note to self; even when booking hotels last minute and looking for a deal, avoid any hotel under 40 euros/night... The next morning after a quick breakfast we were on our way to Caen. A beautiful city, however our exploring was restricted to the Château due to time constraints. Under sunny skies we picnicked up on the hill in the shade of chestnuts and with a view of the citadel. It was difficult to imagine the city we were viewing as the same that was under siege for two months during WWII. (June 6th, 1944 there was a heavy bombing raid after which fires burned for 11 days. Once the Canadians liberated the town on July 9th, the Germans retreated only to begin shelling the town, which lasted another month.) From our perch up on the hill we had a beautiful view of St. Pierre, and a more distant one of St.-Étienne Church, where during the battle more than 1,500 refugees camped out. We explored the ramparts, soaked in the views, and headed north to Pegasus Bridge.

St.-Georges chapel, Château

The site of the two bridges captured soon after midnight during the night of June 5th-6th, 1944 by the British 5th Parachute Brigade was one of the first objectives of the Allied Landings in Normandy. Another unassuming little town, steeped in wartime history. We continued north to the ocean and Sword Beach, Juno Beach and Gold Beach, the landing zones of the British and Canadian troops on D-Day. Arromanches-les-Bains is on the west end of these beaches, and in the little port are the remains of the allied artificial “Mulberry” port. On the east end, high above the town on the dunes is a good eagle-eye view of the port, the harbor, the beaches to the east and the cliffs to the west.

Gold Beach and part of the Arromanches Mulberry harbor

Once down by the ocean visitors must wait until low tide, and then it is possible to walk out onto the beach among the remains of this giant floating harbor. The breakwaters (concrete-filled caissons sunk in the seabed) are also visible, farther out into the ocean, and although some of the concrete pillars still remain, the pier-heads and floating piers (made of metal and on floats) are no longer in the water, so a little imagination must be used to imagine how the port must have looked. The harbor was the landing point for the British Mulberry B troops, and after securing the harbor 146 Phoenix caissons were laid (about 500,000 tons of concrete). These, as well as 33 jetties and 10 miles of floating roads (all prepared before the invasion) had been towed across the Channel at about 4 mph, enabling 9,000 tons of material to be landed each day to support the invasion. (Here I will add that the reasoning behind building these ports was that during the initial invasion/fighting, existing ports would be rendered unusable, and beaches would not allow the landing of the tonnages of materials needed to support the troops in the war effort. These harbors were engineering marvels that were instrumental in the success of the Allied effort.) *All figures and facts courtesy of the Michelin Guide and

Low tide in Arromanches harbor, with sections of the breakwaters and some caissons visible


  1. I loved Normandy!! Your pictures look great! I'm glad you were able to take advantage of the long weekend. I'm no longer allowed to travel so I'm only a little jealous ;)

  2. What fascinating history. It must be so terrifying to live in a war zone. Did they ahve to rebuild after WWII or did the building mostly survive the bombings?

  3. That first picture looks like a postcard. It looks like another great trip.

  4. New to your blog and catching up on some of your French adventures!


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