Normandy full of beauty and history

The mere mention of Normandy triggers plenty of emotion and reflection. It is a significant region in the world that possesses a rugged splendor with a heavy history. Half-timbered towns, fortified farmsteads, sweeping coastlines and thatched roofs decorate the rolling green hills of Normandy. My visit there was filled with intrigue, fascination, education and most of all — a heavy heart.

Not only does Normandy have an extensive history, it is also quite large in geographical area. This region in the Northwestern part of France covers 11,926 square miles, forming roughly 5 percent of the territory of France. Its population of 3.37 million accounts for around 5 percent of the population of France.

Normandy’s name is derived from the settlement of the territory by mainly Danish and Norwegian Vikings (Northmen) from the ninth century, and confirmed by treaty in the 10th century between King Charles III of France and Earl Rollo of More, Norway. For a century and a half, following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Normandy and England were linked by Norman and Frankish rulers.

My trip to Normandy began with a visit to the port city of Rouen. The city is located along the Seine River and is the capital of Normandy.

Rouen was one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe. It was one of the capitals of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of modern France from the 11th to the 15 centuries.

The city has had a turbulent history. It was devastated by fire and plague several times during the Middle Ages and was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War. The young French heroine Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’ Arc) was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in the Central Square in 1431. And during World War II, Allied bombing raids laid waste to large parts of the city.

A walk through the quaint old streets of Rouen feels like a stroll back in time. History waits at every corner, from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Visitors can retrace the steps of Joan of Arc to see where she went to trial and where she was martyred.

Rouen

Most of the top tourist attractions in Rouen lie within the city’s pedestrian zone, a charming area of winding medieval lanes and picturesque homes.

One of the major highlights in Rouen is the Cathedrale Notre-Dame, considered to be one of the largest and most impressive Gothic cathedrals in France. I was impressed by the elaborate façade, which inspired Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The cathedral’s central doorway was the subject of Monet’s famous painting series. He painted the scene at different times of day to capture the effects of various lighting.

The cathedral also boasts France’s highest spire at 495 feet. Despite damage during the Second World War, the cathedral still has some original stained glass windows.

Another city highlight not to be missed is the Tour du Gros-Horloge or Big Clock Tower. This Gothic belfry tower was built in 1389 for defensive purposes and the decorative clock dates from 1889. The belfry clock still serves its timekeeping functions for the city.

I spent a good deal of time admiring the clock’s incredible details. The deity symbolizing the day of the week appears on a triumphal chariot at noon. A globe above the dial shows the phases of the moon and sheep represent the wool industry. Illustrated in the middle of the clock is a Passover lamb, which represents the arms of the city.

With its soaring Gothic cathedral, beautifully restored medieval quarter, excellent museums and vibrant cultural life, Rouen is one of Normandy’s most engaging destinations.

Mont Saint-Michel

The second day of my trip to Normandy was a visit to one of France’s most iconic images, the spectacular island monastery of Mont Saint-Michel. Often referred to as the Mont is an island commune located about 0.6 miles off the Northwestern coast of France, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches and is 247 acres in size.

I stood in awe from the shoreline admiring the slender spires, stout fortifications and rocky slopes of Mont St-Michel rising dramatically from the sea. During the early morning hours that I visited, the Mont towered over the sands laid bare by the receding tide. I scratched my head wondering if I’ve ever walked from the shore to an island before.

The bay around Mont St-Michel is famed for having Europe’s highest tidal variations; the difference between low and high tides — may only be six hours apart — can reach an astonishing 49 feet.

The Mont is only completely surrounded by the sea every month or two, when the tidal coefficient (a tabular system that depicts the size or magnitude of the expected tide at a simple glance) is above 100 and high tide is above 45 feet. Regardless of the time of year, the waters sweep in at an astonishing clip.

One of France’s most recognizable landmarks, visited by more than three million people each year, Mont Saint-Michel and its bay are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Over 60 buildings within the commune are protected in France as monuments historiques.

Despite huge numbers of tourists, both the abbey and the narrow alleys below still manage to transport visitors back to the Middle Ages.

Bayeau

On our way to the Normandy D-Day beaches we stopped in Bayeau, France. Bayeau is famous for its 230 foot long, 900 year old tapestry.

The world’s most celebrated embroidery depicts the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 from an unashamedly Norman perspective. Commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, for the opening of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, the 224-foot cartoon strip tells the dramatic, bloody tale with vigor and intense clarity.

Fifty-eight action-packed scenes of pageantry and mayhem occupy the center of the canvas, while religious messages and meanings and illustrations of everyday 11th century life, some of them naughty, adorn the borders. The final showdown at the battle of Hastings is depicted in graphic fashion, complete with severed limbs and decapitated heads. Scene 32 on the tapestry illustrates Halley’s Comet, which blazed across the sky in 1066.

Pegasus Bridge

Next stop in my all-encompassing Normandy visit was the Pegasus Bridge. The bridge is a bascule bridge (a type of moveable bridge), that was built in 1934, that crossed the Caen Canal, between Caen and Ouistreham.

Also known as the Benouville Bridge after the neighboring village, it was, with the nearby Ranville Bridge over the river Orne, later renamed Horsa Bridge, a major objective of the British airborne troops during Operation Deadstick, part of Operation Tonga in the opening minutes of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

A unit of Glider Infantry of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Maj. John Howard was to land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved. The successful taking of the bridges played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counterattack in the days and weeks following the Normandy invasion.

The battle for the bridge was critical for the Allied forces so that they could prevent German armor from crossing the bridges and attacking the eastern flank of the landings at Sword Beach.

In 1944 it was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honor of the operation. The name is derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces, which is the flying horse Pegasus.

I had goosebumps as I stood near the riverbank next to the bridge scanning the area reflecting on the courage, bloodshed and triumph that took place here. Observing several gliders located near the bridge in their original crash site only added to the intrigue and drama.

Sainte-Mere-Eglise

Not far from Utah Beach is the famed Normandy town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The town’s main claim to fame is that it played a significant part in the World War II Normandy landings because this village stood right in the middle of route N13, which the Germans would have most likely used on any significant counterattack on the troops landing on Utah and Omaha beaches. In the early morning of June 6, 1944 mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions occupied the town in Mission Boston, giving it the claim to be one of the first towns liberated in the invasion.

While the events were unfolding farther west inland, the northern coastline was seeing the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, swarms of landing craft — part of an armada of more than 6,000 ships and boats — hit the beaches of northern Normandy and tens of thousands of Allied soldiers began pouring onto French soil.

The majority of the 135,000 Allied troops who arrived in France that day stormed ashore along 50 miles of beaches north of Bayeux code-named (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The landings on D-Day — known as code-named “Operation Overlord” and “Jour J” in French – were followed by the 76 – day Battle of Normandy, during which the Allies suffered 210,000 casualties, including 37,000 troops killed. German casualties are believed to have been around 200,000; another 200,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner. About 14,000 French civilians also died.

In the first six days, 326,000 men, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of material were landed.

While at Utah Beach the reflection began in earnest when I observed the remains of coastal German bunkers. I shrieked at the location of these bunkers — strategically located above the shoreline to produce mass casualties when the American watercraft landed in the shallow waters.

Outside of the German bunkers and the memorials dotted along the seashore it was hard to imagine the death and destruction that took place here.

In between Utah and Omaha Beaches was Pointe du Hoc. This impressive stronghold of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” is a 100 foot cliff overlooking the English Channel. Pointe du Hoc is the highest point between the two beaches.

The German army fortified the area with concrete casemates and gun pits. On D-Day the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group (2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions) assaulted and captured Pointe du Hoc after scaling the cliffs.

It was alarming to me to actually look down the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and imagine anyone climbing them — even with ropes and rope ladders. Climbing the cliffs was difficult enough but to take on enemy fire while climbing is astonishing.

Shortly beyond the cliffs inland was a series of massive craters and deep crevices as a result of intensive U.S. Naval bombardment to soften the German coastal defenses.

The somber and humbling experience continued with a visit to Omaha Beach where we stopped at the numerous memorial sites and walked along the beaches where the heaviest D-Day casualties incurred.

Memorial

Concluding my trip to Normandy was a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was my final chance to pay respect in person to the soldiers who fell for the liberation of Europe.

On June 8, 1944, the U.S. First Army established the cemetery, the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II. The cemetery consists of 172.5 acres is one of 14 permanent American World War II cemeteries constructed on foreign soil. Free use as a permanent burial ground was granted by the government of France in perpetuity without charge or taxation.

The general layout of the cemetery is rectangular in shape. Its main pathways are laid out in the form of a Latin cross.

Looking out onto the gravesites towards the beaches sent chills down my spine as I thought about all of the individuals that had lost their lives there. Along with the precious memories and experiences that their lives held made me think of the families that had to endure the pain from the terrible loss.

No doubt it was a sobering experience as I walked among the graves at the cemetery, reading the names of the young soldiers, listening to the seagulls, smelling the salty air and imagining what it was like here on that June day in 1944.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Derek Miller lives in Dover with his wife Kathie and daughter Brittany.

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