We woke up yesterday morning and went about our morning routine. Showers, packing, planning the route and then heading out. The night before we went to the grocery store and I bought a baguette and some sliced salami so we'd have something to snack on while we drove. Thinking ahead, since most of the little towns along the way seemed to be closed up for winter. We have found on this trip that most of these beautiful little towns seem to be quiet, with no people walking around or children playing. I wonder if that changes during the summer months, it just seems odd.
We made our way into Bayeux because Michael wanted to go to the Tapestry Museum. When he was talking about this, I won't lie...my eyes rolled back into my head. I pictured this museum filled with tapestries that would take us hours to get through. But I have to say I was wrong.
Bayeux is a beautiful town, we parked near the Cathedral and I couldn't help but take a few pictures. No matter how many you see, the sheer size and beauty of them never get old. We continued through town and came upon a little river, and there was a water wheel there. I spent about 10 minutes taking pictures because it was so picturesque! After I had my fill, we crossed the street to the museum.
We walked in, paid the gentleman at the door and continued in to see the only tapestry they had. The Bayeux Tapestry. This amazing work of art dates back to 1066, and is almost 70 meters long. It chronicles the conquering of England by William, Duke of Normandy...better known as William the Conqueror. We weren't suppose to take any pictures, but I did sneak one. I wonder if they mean that there isn't suppose to be flash, but I didn't want to risk getting caught...so I snuck just one. The Tapestry is in a "U" shaped room, and it is hung along the inside wall. It's quite impressive. It has numbers above each scene, and the audio guide led us through each one.
After seeing the tapestry we moved upstairs to another gallery where it talked more about the battles as well as how the tapestry was made. The process is quite mind blowing. The entire thing is embroidered, and to imagine how long they had to work on it, I just can't even imagine. The tapestry has a wonderful history, where it was housed, when it was displayed and even how it changed hands several times before it finally came to rest in this museum where it is preserved. It's hard to believe that something almost 1,000 years old still looks as good as it does. It goes to show, we just don't make things like we used to.
After we finished the museum we made our way to the next stop which would be the start of the three stops that weigh so heavily on me still this morning.
We drove through the Normandy countryside, snaking our way through small towns, pastures and fields until we came to our first stop. The Arromanches 360 was suggested to us by one of my friends, and I'm so thankful that she told us to stop. The circular theater sits atop the Arromanches clifftops and looks out over the water. We walked around in silence and I couldn't help but picture what it looked like on June 6th, 1944 with the water full of ships and the air full of smoke.
After taking some pictures outside, we made our way into the theater. We had a few minutes to wait before the next showing so I snapped some pictures of the inside. When the theater doors opened, we walked in to see 9 screens above our heads all around us. We were the only ones in the theater for this showing. Thinking about the videos that played, the images shown, still overwhelms me. The death, the devastation and the joy of the people of France after the Allied Forces beat the Nazis. It all started to become so real, instead of just something in a text book. I found that after leaving the theater that I was left the way I would be for most of the rest of the day...without words.
After the film we made our way silently to the car, my head was full of the images of the mortars, the people running or walking through their bombed out town...images of soldiers being shot and their lifeless bodies being carried back to the ship. My heart started to become heavy.
We got into the car, and set the GPS to take us to our next stop. We again snaked our way through one lane roads, sharp curves, small quaint towns and farmland to reach our next stop. Omaha Beach. We drove down to the beach and got out. As I stepped onto the beach...I lost my breath. I was standing on the beach where thousands of U.S. soldiers landed on D-Day, and many of them lost their lives. I was standing on the beach that was called "The Beach of Blood." I looked out over the water as my eyes welled up with tears. So many men gave their lives so I could stand on this beach, that all these years later look like any other beach.
After spending a little time on the beach we made our way up to the American Cemetery at Normandy, which sits on the cliffs above Omaha Beach. We reached the top and parked the car...and headed back towards the beach where they had a few monuments. Neither of us really spoke during this part. We walked around the monuments, stared out at the water...and I touched the names that were written on each one. I don't know why I did it, but it felt like it was a way I could say thank you, honoring them as my fingers ran across the letters of their names.
We made our way back up the hill and into the Cemetery. This is so wonderfully maintained, and I'm so impressed with the entire place. The respect that fills that place could be felt. We walked into the museum and started to walk through all the exhibits. It talked about preparing for the day, it gave stories of some of the people involved. Right before you get to the end of the museum you walk through this long hallway. As you are walking, they are reading aloud the names of those killed. You walk into a room where they display picture of those recognized for their courageous acts.
Right before you leave to go outside, in the center of the the room is the gun of a soldier stuck in the ground, with a helmet on top. The simplicity of this scene says so much more than any words could.
As we made our way outside to the cemetery, we decided to walk up to the memorial first. It was starting to rain, so we took shelter under one of the sides of it. It looked as if it were letting up so we crossed to the other side. In the center of the memorial is a bronze statue which symbolizes "Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves." As we got under the other side of the memorial, I turned around to see a rainbow, and the hand of the statue touching it.
As we walked towards the area of the cemetery with the head stones I felt my breath leaving me again. You truly don't understand the magnitude of the sacrifice made for the rest of us until you are walking through the head stones of all those who gave their lives for our freedom. I feel so privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to step foot on this dirt where so many men and women gave their lives. I felt so humbled as I walked through the head stones, reading names and seeing all the ones who were not identified yet still given a place to rest. I felt so small when I realized how even I take all the freedoms I have for granted. Even now, typing this, my heart feels so heavy and I feel the tears building up. I have no more words, so I'll share pictures.
After we left the cemetery, we made our way to our final stop, Pointe du Hoc, which was also suggested by my friend. Pointe du Hoc is the highest point that sits between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. It was fortified by the Germans, and on D-Day, The American Army Ranger Assault Group of over 225 men landed and scaled the 100 foot cliffs to defeat the Germans. When the battle was over, the group of Army Rangers was reduced to around 90.
Today, you can see the bombed out German fortified casements and gun pits. And you can see the deep holes in the ground where the bombs hit. It's amazing to walk through there, and imagining the scene from that day.
After this final stop we got back into the car and made our way back to Rennes. We had our dinner, then waited for the train to head back to Paris. When we got home I wanted to go to sleep, but my head was still spinning from the day. I posted a video that I took from The American Cemetery at Normandy on FaceBook and I got a message this message from a family friend:
Wow Brian. Thank you for sharing. I wanted to share with you, that while on a visit there, my youngest daughter called me. She was 16 at the time and on a tour of France. When I first heard her voice over the phone that day I was certain something horrible must have happened. She was choking back tears and trying to describe what she was seeing. When she was able to, she tried to express what you just showed us. She just kept saying "there are no words" and that "she loved us". It is hard to cross the line between age or generation but, it appears that for that place at least, age does not matter. It's impact leaves you speechless and moved beyond words.
This was the message that I needed...and finally the tears came. I don't know why they didn't come earlier in the day while I was walking through the cemetery. I do know that the entire train ride back to Paris I thought about the beaches of Normandy and the men and women from not only the United States, but the rest of the Allied Forces, who gave their lives to liberate France and secure our freedoms as well.
Out of everything we've done on this wonderful vacation, yesterday has changed my life. I cannot express the gratitude and respect I have for the men and women of the Armed Forces for their willingness to fight for the rest of us. Who give so selflessly to make sure that we can sleep at night and live the lives that we do. I will always remember this day at Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery, and I'm better for having stepped foot on that dirt.