09/18/2010, Courseulles-sur-Mer, FR
Photo: Steph at Juno Beach
From our temporary base at François and Joseé's home in St-Agnan le Malherbe, we drove to Courseulles-sur-Mer and Juno Beach, where the Canadians landed at D-Day. Steph has been busy snapping photos and writing down her impressions as part of her First and Second World War studies. The Juno Beach Centre here is staffed by Canadians, but unlike the WWI memorials at Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel, it is run by a Veterans' non-profit organization. The museum itself is well-designed, with plenty of information about Canada before, during, and after the war, and it is a short walk to the beaches where some of the remains of Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" still stand, a reminder of the fierce opposition the Canadians faced when they landed on 6 June 1944. One bunker shows the visible scars of a shell hitting just above the gun emplacement, and this particular bunker was stormed by Lieut. Aiken's company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, at the cost of three-quarters of his men. Many of them are buried a short distance to the south at the Canadian Cemetary at Bény-sur-Mer, along with more than 2,000 other Canadians who fell in the early weeks of the Normandy campaign. One cannot help but be moved by the immaculate condition in which these beautifully-designed cemetaries are maintained in stark contrast to the horrific conditions that claimed their occupants, and if surveying the row upon rows of headstones is not sombre enough, some of the poignant tributes left at a few of the headstones really strike home; one in particular was a note to a 19-year old soldier killed shortly after D-Day, written on the back of a photo that had to have been taken when he was a young boy, surrounded by family on a prairie farm.
Needing a bit of a lift to the day's mood, we drove into Caen and visited the Château and Musée de Normandie, where William the Conqueror built his principal castle, and Marine furthered her study of the Middle Ages....in France it is easy to pass through several eras of historical artefacts and monuments within a few kilometres!
09/17/2010, St-Agnan-le-Malherbe and Bayeux
(Photo: "Decisions, decisions...." Marine in sweet and sticky heaven in Bayeux)
After an enjoyable morning picking blackberries with Pierre (which will soon be coverted into jam), we headed into Bayeux to view the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 68-metre embroidered cloth that depicts the events leading up to and culminating with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in which William the Conqueror became King of England. My mother's family is french in origin, and apparently crossed the Channel with William. The tapistry was commissioned in 1077, and while there is debate as to whether it was fabricated in England or France and to what extent it served as Norman propaganda, what is remarkable is that it has survived largely intact. The detail in the tapestry is such that we did the self-guided audio tour twice; first to appreciate the story, and the second time to appreciate the details of the embroidery and the accuracy (physical, if not political) of many of the episodes portrayed. Marine compared it to the battle scenes depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. After a walkabout through Bayeux, we drove back to St-Agnan-le-Malherbe for dinner with the Katzs, followed by a very welcome swim at a nearby municipal pool. Upon our return, we were struck by the brilliance of the moon and the starry night sky, something we don't usually get to enjoy as much at home as the city night lights of Halifax usually wash it out. La vie en compagne est belle!
(Photo: Marine at Pegasus Bridge)
Yesterday we took our leave of Pierre and Marianne, picked up our rental car, and headed west towards Caen. We passed over the famous "Pegasus Bridge", where 180 British commandos landed in six gliders and captured the bridge over the River l'Orne in the early hours of 6 June, 1944. A sign over a café next to the bridge proudly proclaims it as the first house liberated in France by the Allies. Five miles to the north at Ouistreham is Gold Beach, and we plan to return to the D-Day beaches to visit Juno Beach and the Canadian memorial there.
Today finds us at the house of Joseé and François Katz, whom we met in Mayaguana, the Bahamas, sailing their boat Kama. They have since sold their boat and moved back to France in the Norman countryside south-east of Caen, which is dotted with small villages with names like Maisoncelles-sur-Ajon, Ste-Honorine-du-Fay, Aunay-sur-Odon, and le-Mesnil-au-Grain. It is beautiful rolling farmland here, lined with hedgerows, and the narrow roads winding their way up and down the hills pose the occasional challenge when a large piece of farm machinery forces us as far over as the trees/ditches/cornfields permit.
Marine is thrilled to be at the Katz's, as they have a backyard flock of chickens, ducks and quail. Marine is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the debate in Halifax over backyard flocks, as she wants chickens of her own in the backyard(!). Later we will head out to pick blackberries with the Katzs, as they have a small business selling jams and jellies.
We have a fifth rider in the car, whom we have dubbed "Gypse", our navigatrice. "She" is our newly-acquired Garmin GPS unit, who gives us direction in a very french accent, and has the habit of interrupting our converstaions in the car with advice such as "Au rond point, prenez la seconde sortie et tournez gauche sur la D635 ver xxxx..." We decided to name our new "presence" in the car, and since we are living a bit of a gypsy life going from place to place, we settled on "Gypse", as the name also incorporates the letters G, P and S in the name. "Gypse's" most oft-used word yesterday was "recalcule," owing to a few wrong turns on our part, and I imagine we'll be hearing more of it; still, Gypse has already proven her worth navigating the labyrinthe-like small roads here in France.