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Omaha Beach

Bayeux, Normandy: revisiting D-Day

France, Normandy - Memorial at Omaha Beach

An unexpected cancellation leads to a visit to a historic place: Omaha Beach, where the Allied Forces landed in 1944 on D-Day. The author's father was there and the visit is in honor of his memory. But it turns out Bayeux is also a beautiful medieval town with many interesting sights.

Travelogue & photos: Sandra Shaw Homer

France, Normandy - 400 years old oak, Municipal Garden

Travel by freighter is bound to provide a dose of the unexpected, and the older and more infirm you are, the more challenging it can be. This was to be my last grand tour through Europe to visit family and friends before major spinal surgery, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to travel again. But this time the unexpected had a serendipitous twist.

Half-way across the Atlantic, I learned from the captain that my ship home from Genoa had been cancelled because she would be in dry-dock. My route had been so carefully planned: Livorno on the Ligurian coast, Florence, then Lake Garda to meet a friend, on to Zürich, then Paris where it just so happened that my sister was able to meet me for a few days, and finally south to Genoa. All of this with Eurail Pass and hotel reservations made long in advance. I should have known better.

An opportunity to visit Omaha Beach

Heading west instead of south

France, Normandy - The medieval town of Bayeux

The travel agent had to scramble to get me back across the Atlantic at all in mid-summer, and she finally came up with an old rust-bucket out of Le Havre ten days later. At that point it didn't make much sense for me to head south after Paris, only to have to turn around again to catch a boat leaving from the north coast of France. Normandy beckoned - I had never been there, and suddenly there was an opportunity to visit Omaha Beach where my father had commanded a Landing Craft Tanks unit (LCT) on June 6, 1944. And just as suddenly this seemed like an important thing for me to do.

Parting from my sister in Paris, I rented a car and drove to Bayeux. This Norman town is all about D-Day, and June 6th was the first mild sunny day since my arrival almost a week earlier. There was a festive atmosphere downtown - colorful allied flags were fluttering in the breeze and someone was piping music of the 40s into the street. All the flowers were out in front of the flower shop, and they made a wonderfully colorful display in the sunshine.

'I was in Bayeux'

A medieval village that wasn't bombed

France, Normandy - Flower shop on D-Day

Everybody was selling World War II memorabilia, along with toy knights in shining armor and T-shirts saying 'I was in Bayeux'. (William the Conqueror's brother was Bishop of Bayeux Cathedral, where the 1000-year-old Bayeux Tapestry was hidden for so many centuries.)

France, Normandy - View of the medieval cathedral from the hotel

Bayeux was the first town liberated after the invasion of Normandy, and it was one of the few medieval villages that wasn't bombed, so that the Cathedral - magnificent Gothic gem that it is - was untouched, along with block after block of ancient stone buildings along the river Aure. It's a pretty town, and the first week in June is its busiest all year. I was lucky to find a room.

It was a relief, after so much traveling, to stay in one hotel for a full week, just to rest, relax, reorganize, and catch up on writing and laundry. What wasn't so comfortable was the skinny parking area alongside the hotel, the spaces all running in line along a high wall with barely enough room to squeeze my tiny car between the vehicles and the hotel. The management insisted that you park backwards so as to make it easier getting out, and they also insisted that I put my car at the very end and, after my first attempt, I simply gave up.

After neck surgery, driving backwards for any distance is just too hard, especially through such a narrow alley, but 'Pas de problème, Madame, I will park it for you.'

Exploring without pressure

The best omelet I ever had

France, Normandy - Medieval house in Bayeux

The management was gracious in other ways also, allowing me to use the secure Internet connection in the office for banking, and letting me up into the hotel's attic laundry to do a little ironing with La Bête - the giant iron that the girls use on the sheets. And the manager gave me a blue card so I could park in the special spaces in the center of town, making it easier for me to get around without having to walk too far. And with a whole week to while away, I was able to explore without the pressure of having to be anyplace else.

When I arrived in town, I didn't know how to find my hotel, so I slid into a parking space on the main street right in front of a cluttered little café. It was too early for lunch, but I was starving and they agreed they could make me a mushroom omelet - light and creamy and bursting with fresh mushrooms, it was the best omelet I've ever had in my life.

France, Normandy - Café interior

The waitress was very friendly and we somehow managed to chat in a jerky way - she had almost no English and my French is worse - but she did manage to direct me to my hotel, and so I had lunch there two or three more times that week, where it was so nice to be remembered.

Normandy: a long and tortured history

The municipal museum

France, Normandy - Altar detail, Municipal Museum

The municipal museum, as hard as it was to find, was a beautifully designed showplace of the area's history, from Roman times on, including some of the exquisite lace and pottery for which Normandy is famous.

France, Normandy - Portrait of Thomas More, Municipal Museum Bayeux

I was almost alone in the place, and everything was so beautifully displayed, I pulled out my camera and was taking pictures... when a guard caught me at it. I hadn't seen a sign, but I wasn't going to argue. One of my favorite pieces there was a portrait of Sir Thomas More, which I did get a picture of!

One of the things that becomes obvious the more one gets to know Normandy is the long and mostly tortured history of its connections with England. 1066 is only one small part of that, and that particular part is vividly told in the Bayeux Tapestry, which isn't a tapestry at all, technically speaking, but an embroidery, an incredibly elaborate story 70 meters long stitched by who-knows-how-many hands in the years just after 1066 and now stretched out to its full length behind glass in a wonderful museum space that allows you to get close enough to be able to count the stitches. Which is just what I did, lingering over each detailed scene as the other visitors pushed around behind me.

It is a lively and colorful historical document, and it's amazing that it has survived these thousand years to tell the story of what the British call the Invasion and the French call the Conquest.

Kitchen store

'J'aime les choses de la cuisine!'

France, Normandy - Butcher shop

Looking for a place to park late one afternoon, I spied a kitchen shop. I am not a shopper; in fact, I dislike shopping. Kitchen stores, on the other hand, draw me like a magnet - I just need to know if there's some clever little gadget I haven't heard of yet - but as I walked into this one, the proprietress was just closing up. So the next day I went back and pawed happily over almost her entire inventory, and when she asked if there was anything in particular I was looking for I stood in the middle of the shop, threw out my arms and shouted my first spontaneous correct sentence in French since high school: 'J'aime les choses de la cuisine!' (I love kitchen stuff.) She laughed. I hadn't room in my suitcase for anything in her shop except a rather unusual bottle brush, which I bought, stumbling over words of apology for not buying anything more significant. No matter, she and I had connected and it was a lovely moment.

Another cluttered little café

Physical proximity forces you into conversation

France, Normandy - Café near cathedral

Another day I had a delightful encounter with a couple behind whom I had to squeeze into a tiny corner table in another cluttered little café - the sheer physical proximity forced us into conversation. They were Belgians on their way home after a tour of Brittany. He had been a seaman, an engineer for a Belgian merchant shipping line until he retired just as the containers were beginning to take over, and he lamented the short times in port after everything had become so mechanized. He said his ships could carry as many as eleven passengers and that they had a nurse on board, which I found interesting, since today's companies don't waste resources on nurses. I don't know if this gentleman was the chief engineer or not, but he once conducted a tour of the engine room with all eleven passengers and got hell for it from his captain. I told him I had been in the engine room on my first freighter voyage. 'Noisy,' he said. We had been wearing ear protectors and he said that back in his day there were no ear protectors. Given that, I was amazed he could hear what I was saying!

It was a congenial interlude, and the Madame - who had a bosom like a battleship - was serving me right in front of their noses, there being no room for her bulk to squeeze behind them to put things on my table. I've been back there once more for lunch because she's so comical, with her hawk-like nose and wild hair that was once dyed red but is now mostly gray and sticking out at all angles, something I doubt she has actually planned as a coiffure. She runs the front, her husband cooks in the back. And because I have a few words of French, she rattles on at me as if I could understand everything she's saying. Plenty of goodwill, even if little comprehension.

The cathedral

The most extraordinary pulpit

France, Normandy - Bayeux cathedral

I saved the cathedral for an evening, since I passed it often on my way to my favorite little restaurant a few blocks' walk from my hotel, and I almost got locked in. There was no sign to say what its hours were, and I clearly annoyed the priest or acolyte or whoever he was when I had to ask him to unlock the big doors to let me out. Over one side door was a bas relief detailing the history of Thomas Beckett, and I'm sure that a guide could have pointed out other marvelous bits of history. It was a lovely, light Gothic space, nothing particularly of note artistically except for the most extraordinary pulpit: raised above the nave and accessible by a small curved staircase, all in wood and ornately carved, it was crowned by a giant puff of marble cloud that made me think instantly of marshmallows, out of which peeked several gilded seraphim, wings and swords poking through at wild angles. It was so grotesque that I wanted to laugh out loud. Given that I had to beg my way out of the church, I'm glad I didn't.

France, Normandy - Beggar at the cathedral door

There had been a beggar at the door of the church the evening before, a woman of uncertain age in a knit cap, jacket and trousers, with her hand held, palm up, close against her breast. Her lonely figure, dark clad, stood out against the bright red door of the Cathedral. I thought how strange it was to see her in such stark contrast to the luxury cars parked all along the narrow street leading to one of the best restaurants in town. She held her hand so still, so solemn, saying nothing, as I hobbled past with my walking stick. And when I determined to visit the church the next day to give her some euros, I was sorry to see that she was gone. Always obey a generous impulse, I reminded myself.

Omaha Beach

A stunning steel sculpture

France, Normandy - Lace parasol, Municipal Museum

The country around Bayeux is dotted with museums loaded with tanks and other war materiel, and there are the well-known cemeteries with their seeming millions of white crosses ranked across the landscape. But it was enough for me just to visit Omaha Beach and I chose a morning when I figured not many people would be there. Most of the guests in my hotel were clearly there for the D-Day celebrations, including a few nonagenarians in uniform, who were just boys on that beach so many decades ago. I didn't want to run into a crowd. And I was lucky: I had that huge expanse of flat sand all to myself. I could imagine the LCTs trying to land in the confusion as the shells burst all around them. Our father got a piece of shrapnel in his leg that day. It was a slight wound, fortunately, and he refused the Purple Heart because it was in the back of his leg.

It was blustery and cold, a big wind blowing off the Atlantic - or I should say the Channel, although there was nothing to be seen on the other side and it felt as if that wind had been blowing for a few thousand miles straight off the Arctic. I had come equipped with all the clothes I could think of and I layered on everything before climbing out of the car, but even so I could stay out in that gale for only a few minutes.

France, Normandy - Omaha Beach

There's a stunning steel sculpture at the foot of the steps leading to the sand, its great metallic wings gleaming in the sunshine and, beautiful as it is, I couldn't help thinking of all the metal unloaded onto that beach - equipment and arms and shells - and I could imagine that huge expanse of white sand littered with the dead and dying.

I've seen too many war movies and, while I can perfectly understand the importance of the invasion of Normandy on that date to the subsequent winning of the war, I've reached the age where killing doesn't make any sense and part of me shrivels up when I contemplate a scene, now swept clean of all but memories, like Omaha Beach. Still, I scooped up a handful of sand and put it in my pocket - a small souvenir.

In memory of my father

A rustic D-Day hotel with a guestbook

There was a rustic D-Day tourist hotel and restaurant a short distance from the beach, and I was desperate to get warm and find something to eat, but the hour was in between breakfast and lunch, so all I could get was some welcome hot coffee and a crusty piece of bread. I sat there remembering my impressions of the war when I was a child, and my awe that our father had been in the thick of it. To me, then, he was a hero, although he never wanted to talk about it. I asked him once, long after I was an adult, about what it was like that day in 1944, and all he said was that there were a lot of bodies bumping around in the surf. That was vivid enough. I didn't ask anymore.

Finishing my coffee, I noticed a guest book propped on a small shelf near the cash register. I took up the pen tied there with a string and signed it, for my sister and me, 'In memory of Charles E. Shaw, Jr., U.S. Navy Commander of an LCT on June 6, 1944' with tears in my eyes.

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