Europe 2014 – Caen and Normandy Beaches – A Sobering Day of Reflection (Re-Post)

The original post yesterday did not include the pictures so am resending it to see if it will correct the problem.

Timeline: July 31st  – August 1st

Montigny to Caen

Montigny to Caen

We had intended to get an early start on Thursday in order to drive to Mont Saint Michel for the day before spending the next two nights in Caen for our visit to the Normandy WWII battle sites and monuments.  This got sidetracked as the replacement pole we’d ordered a for our North Face Bedrock 6 tent had not yet arrived at Francois’ (we had it sent there), although he had received a notice from the Post Office that delivery had been attempted the day before, a puzzling development has he’d been home all day.

And so we spent the morning and early afternoon idling about, doing laundry, organizing gear, working the internet and of course, talking.  Francois connected with the Post Office and as would be expected, the package was out for delivery.  By early afternoon we decided that it was fruitless to wait and after another fine lunch by Francois, we began to make our way to leave for Caen. I emailed him the address of the campground, Vliegenbos, we’d be staying in Amsterdam so he could mail me the pole when it finally arrived.

While we were gathering our things together Francois stepped out for a moment and when he returned, to our surprise and delight, he had the package from North Face.  He’d intercepted the delivery person and retrieved the pole.  Our wait had been rewarded and we bid farewell to Francois, a sadder occasion than the last time as we knew it would be a couple of months before we would see him again.

The drive to Caen took a couple of hours, mostly freeway and then smaller roads, as we approached town.  We checked into the Hotel Crocus Caen Memorial at a very reasonable 72 Euros per night for our triple and relaxed in the room for a spell.  As dinner approached, Beverly and Joanna weren’t very hungry so I suggested that we eat in the hotel restaurant, which appeared to have a nice menu with good prices.

Beverly ordered a ham omelet, Joanna the Mussels and Frites (Mussels are very popular all over the western part of Europe), and I the three course prix fixe (for only 19 Euros).  I chose a Assiette du terroir (products from the farm) as the appetizer, including foie gras, pork pate, Carpaccio, and various other small selections.  The choice was a success, the entire portion consumed quickly, introducing Bev to a couple of items she would not have ordered if left to her own devices.

Our main courses came and my choice of Poulet vallée d’auge (chicken with apple sauce) was one of the best dishes I’d experienced on the trip, this area is famous for its cider and calvados.  Tender succulent chicken that easily separated from the bone in a sauce rich yet sharp due to its apple base, accompanied by fried potatoes in the local style and a salad that included pickled vegetables.

Portion sizes were large and curiously, although all had proclaimed to not be that hungry plates were clean when they were cleared from the table.  For desert we split an apple tart with fresh whipped cream, the perfect way to end our apple driven dinner.

Our plan for the next day was to start in Arromanches, about 20 miles away from Caen and then work our way down the coast, first to the American Cemetery, and then to Ponte du Hoc.  Thinking we’d finish in the later afternoon, we’d then make what we had calculated to be an hour’s drive down to Mont Saint Michel to tour the monastery and see the rock lit up at night.

We’d been lucky since Bev’s arrival; blessed with warm sunny days, blue skies, fleecy clouds and this day would play out the same way.  This part of the coast is reminiscent of many parts of the west coast, with broad sandy beaches interrupted by monumental cliffs leading down to the sea, and like Northern California, surrounded by lush farm country.  We parked in a pay lot in Arromanches and took in the view of the remnants of the floating harbor constructed during the invasion effort to facilitate the landing of the equipment needed to support the allies offensive push through France.

Cliffs and Floating Docks at Arromanches

Cliffs and Floating Docks at Arromanches

Joanna and I last visited this area in 1984 and based our schedule for the day on that experience.  As little was developed then, we’d spend a short amount of time at each spot and then move on.  Much has changed in the thirty years since but foremost is the development of tourist related activity.  In Arromanches we were drawn to the Arromanches Circular Cinema, a 360 Degree nine screen film about the preparation for, and execution of, the invasion.  Well done, it was worth the price of admission but took about an hour in total to finish and be on our way down the coast.

Next was the Longues-sur -Mert, four 152-mm navy guns, each protected by a large concrete casemate, a command post, shelters for personnel and ammunition, and several defensive machine-gun emplacements.

Longues-sur-Mer battery

Longues-sur-Mer battery

From there it was the American Cemetery.  Upon arrival we were directed to a large grassy parking lot on the outskirts of the paved lot, which proved fortuitous as we could more easily picnic there with some supplies we’d purchased in Caen on the way out of town.  On the drive from Arromanches we’d also stopped to pick up our first bottle of cider (at five percent, just like beer) and enjoyed that along with our lunch.

Tailgate Picnic

Tailgate Picnic

One big change since our last visit is the new visitor’s center and museum at the cemetery.  It features a comprehensive and very well done presentation of the invasion, its logistics, and consequences and fittingly honors the sacrifice of those who died here or near here.  We again spent well over an hour inside and then regrouped outside in the cemetery itself to view the large memorial piece, walk the grounds, and seek out the graves of two of the brothers that were the basis for the film Saving Private Ryan.

By this now, we were beginning to run out of time and so we made the decision not to head down to Mont Saint Michel as the GPS advised it would take nearly two hours from our current location.  That settled we spent some effort near Omaha Beach searching for a memorial erected after the war honoring a engineering corps, a member of which Beverly knew back in Kansas.  The search proved fruitless as Bev and Joanna were to discover talking to a local that the original monument had been torn down and they were awaiting its replacement.

Memorial at Cemetery

Memorial at Cemetery

With less than an hour until closing, we rushed down to Pont du Hoc for a quick run through that area.  As with the cemetery, a new visitors center has been built there, one we couldn’t do justice to, as we needed to get out to the point before the place shut down.  It’s still as powerful to me as it was thirty years ago, this heavily fortified cliff top, a steep climb up from the beach, taken by a group of American Rangers under heavy fire securing this final link in a chain of beaches that established the base to launch the final offensive to free Europe from the Nazis.

View from Pont du Hoc

View from Pont du Hoc

On the way back to Caen we stopped in at a Cider Farm we’d spotted on the drive to Pont du Hoc, Lebrec Cider.  They offered tastings of cider and calvados and located in a quaint old farmhouse, it was the perfect way to end a long day of sightseeing.  We sampled the three types of cider (dry, semi dry, and sweet) and the calvados and after a pleasant chat with the owner, who tended the bar, drove away with a small inventory of the product to enjoy that night and later on in the trip.

Cidery Lebrec

Cidery Lebrec

These types of days weigh heavily on a person.  You’re visiting history but not a disembodied history pertaining to some long lost dynasty.  Many of us grew up just after the war and it played a large role in our consciousness, drove the movies and TV programs we watched in earnest, made us proud to be Americans.  But war comes at a cost and as we made the drive to Caen, I imagined rows of headstones lining the road, reminding me of the sacrifices many had made to keep us all free.

Grave Markers

Grave Markers


Bedrock 6:

Mont Saint Michel:


Crocus Memorial Hotel:



Arromanches Circular Cinema:

Longues-sur-Mer Battery:

American Cemetery:

Pont du Hoc:

Cidery Lebrec –


Pudding for Desert

Pudding for Desert



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