Caen, Rouen & the D-Day beaches (22-24 September)
Sep 22, 2008
|After a bit of a false start on arriving in Caen (no accommodation booked, no map, did not know where we were or how to get to the tourist information centre, which was all solved when we picked up a wifi hotspot out the front of a maccas) we dropped off our bags and headed to the Caen Peace museum. (Reading this synopsis we sound quite competent, let me assure you it is not so, we walked off the ferry at 7.15am and did not get to the museum until 12pm).
The museum was excellent with lots of short films and giving a big picture view of the fall of France in the second world war leading upto the D-Day invasion and the eventual fall of Germany. The second part of the museum (which was enormous) gave an overview of significant world events following WWII (cold war, bay of pigs, Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, etc.), there was also a very moving September 11 exhibit with many stories and artifacts from the day.
Having done the background research, the following day we headed to the D-Day beaches. The beaches themselves were similar to the Gallipoli beaches in that there were no sign today of the battles of the past other than the monuments scattered along the coast. We started at Sword beach (British landing site) and drove along the coast past Juno (Canadian landing) and Gold beaches (British landing site) and along to Bayeux on the Overlord Assault trail.
We stopped along the way at different monuments and remaining “casements” (fortified long range gun blocks). The most interesting strip was between the towns of Arromanches and Longues Sur Mer (Juno) where there were remnants of the floating harbour created to enable the landing of backup troops and supplies (this was one of the innovations and keys to success of the D-Day landing. There was also an intact fortified observation post (the long range guns tended to be further inland and an observation post was set up to radio through the firing coordinates). We did not continue on to the American sector of Omaha and Utah beaches – one of the things that surprised us was just how long this stretch of coastline was. It is mind boggling to think of five separate, but coordinated, landings on this long stretch of coast, with the noise of boats, planes, gunfire and bombs from both sides.
From Bayeux we had to drive the 2hours to Rouen where we were staying. We arrived at a tollway where rather than the coin slot we were expecting there was just a slot for “carte”. We did not know what the “card” was and as traffic backed up behind us and the barrier remained down we were at a loss until a staff member made there way over and looked at us oddly asking but don't you have a credit card? Finally we made it into Rouen and to our hotel, I ran in and asked them to open the garage door, jumped back in the car and in we went through the door to ... well we couldn't see anything when we came in and then there was a drop – the ramp in was so steep it felt like the car was vertical (a 10m ramp making a 5m drop) with a concrete wall at the end. It was heart stopping, but there was no going back (car could not possibly reverse on that incline) and so in we went and managed to park safely. Well we thought, getting out should be easier ...
The following morning, after dropping our bags in the car and moving around the now empty car park to a more strategic location so we could drive up the ramp later, we left the hotel with a cheery Bonjour! to the receptionist (before realising that we had said hello instead of goodbye).We stopped for a morning Cafe crème at a French bar managing to order correctly in French, having finished our coffees Michael paid the bill and thanked the waiter with a “grazie” (momentarily forgetting that we were in France where thank you is “merci” not Italy). We are taking the French language as though we were born here!
We wandered around the very picturesque town of Rouen where there are two enormous gothic churches, which could very easily have been the Rouen Notre Dame cathedral, but were not, the actual cathedral was about the size of two city blocks. It had been badly damaged by bombing during WWII, but had been lovingly restored – you could see one wall had been completely destroyed and replaced with stone bricks, many of the statues that had been on the outside walls were displayed inside the cathedral and most of the stained glass windows had been destroyed. Despite this the cathedral was very impressive with hundreds of very ornate statues, pieces of stone lattice work, and gorgoyles decorating the outside. The inside was beautiful, in particular the ceiling along the central apse.
We wandered around the historic old town with tudor style building lined up in what the lonely planet described as “punch drunk” rows as there was not a plumb line in sight. We stopped at the cross marking the spot where Joan of Arc (aged 19) was burned at the stake for witchcraft by the English, having led an army for her country. Tough times to be a woman.
There was a statue of a man on a horse with a really big head.
We headed back to the hotel to pick up the car and here we ran into some problems. We had reversed into the park next to the ramp, so turned onto the ramp and hit the gas and went, well not far at all as the back wheel hit the side of the ramp where it taped off sharply (apparently this is called a champer) and the front wheel hit a rough patch of concrete and spun on the spot unable to gain any traction but making a lot of noise. We realised quickly that what we should have done was reverse into the space directly at the end of the ramp (and reserved for this purpose) and used this to get a run up the ramp in a straight line. Unfortunately the car was on such an angle that it was not possible to reverse out without hitting the concrete pillar so we just had to reverse the 2m we had and keep trying. The clutch burned, the tyres squeeled, the engine roared and the garage filled with the smell of burning rubber, but after 5-6 attempts we made it up the ramp and on our way. It took much of the remainder of the day for the burnt smell to works its way out of the car. Upon getting out to look at the ramp it was deemed not to be worthy of a photo as it didn't accurately reflect just how steep it really was.
It was still quite early in the day so we decided to head back to one of the museums on the D-Day beaches. We went to the musee de la batterie de Merville in Merville-Franceville, which was very impressive. The museum was the site of an important German battery and was the scene of a critical battle on 6th June, just moments before the landings on the beaches that we had seen yesterday. There were ten bunkers in total and 4 formidable casements whose guns laid enfilade fire on Sword Beach, threatening the Eastern flank of the Allied invasion. The museum set up displays in the casements which went through the story of the landing of the British 9th Battalion The Parachute Regiment whose aim was to take out the casements in order to permit the landing on the beaches. One casement was fitted out and there was a sound and light show so that you experienced from the German prespective the dropping of 1000 tonnes of bombs on the casement in the early hours of 6 June 1944, heard the radio cries for help from the observation post as the sentry there saw the invasion force, re-enactments of the firing of the battery on Sword beach, and then experienced the gun and grenade fire as the British parachute regiment. In the next casement was a memorial to the British parachute regiment, including a documentary with some of the soldiers who were part of the D-Day taking of the Merville Battery. The whole experience was quite moving and brought the enormous D-Day landing down to the individual level as we learned about the experience of both sides in one battle.