There’s probably never a bad time to go to France, but Normandy on Remembrance Day is something special. Even though we didn’t actually attend a ceremony, hear Last Post or the “We will remember them” poem, or observe an official moment of silence, you can’t help but feel reverent at the places we had the opportunity to see.
We flew from Shannon airport into Paris-Beauvais, which is actually northwest of Paris. It worked nicely for us because we rented a car and didn’t have to drive anywhere near Paris itself. We drove to Caen, where we spent our first three nights. We got in pretty late and by the time we found our hotel it was basically time for bed.
We spent a large part of Day One at Le Mémorial de Caen, a gigantic museum that covers most of the 20th century and focuses especially on the role France had in various wars and military strategies. It was a little too much for me and I got bored after World War 2, so we didn’t actually see all of it. There was a huge amount of information and I felt a little silly staying indoors and reading about it when we could be outside (on one of our few sunny days!) actually seeing the locations we were reading about. I would have liked to see the Berlin Wall exhibit, but it wasn’t actually open to the public until the day after we were there. So after lunch at the Mémorial, we headed over to Juno Beach. By the time we got there it was about an hour and a half before closing time at the Juno Beach Center, which wouldn’t have been enough time to see the museum properly. So we just explored the beach itself and took lots of photos.
One thing that really struck home for me when we visited the beaches was how huge they are. We’d watched The Longest Day right before going, so we’d seen lots of movie footage of the Normandy landings on D-Day. But when I saw the beaches I was amazed at how immensely long, wide and open they were. The Germans were seriously well set-up; they’d been there for a long time already and had bunkers and guns on the high ground in the dunes above the beach. The Allies had basically no cover at all. I’m not sure how well it’s represented in our photos, but I’m amazed that we got through with anyone still alive.
We spent Day Two at Mont St Michel, an abbey that has been built up on a tiny island over about 1200 years. It’s a complete labyrinth for anyone who’s never been there before. When we first walked in through the main gate, we were in a chaotic market street with restaurants and tourist shops everywhere. We wandered aimlessly for a little while, and stopped at one booth where the staff member explained that we could buy one ticket for ‘all four’ museums, and gave us a map. Hurray! So we wandered through the first two ‘museums’. One was a couple of rooms set up with furniture to simulate ‘a day in the life’ for one of the royal families that lived in the castle. The next was a ‘sound and light show’ (entirely in French) which we skipped, and a tour through the dungeon cells and torture area, complete with creepy wax figures and very dark lighting.
We had some trouble navigating, even with the map, and eventually found our way up to the Abbey, which turned out not to be included in the ‘four museums’ ticket, and also turned out to be the part of the whole site that we actually wanted to see! So we shelled out some more money (hey, you only live once) and took the audio-guided tour through the Abbey. It was cool to see how it was set up. Basically the Romans started building on the island in the eighth century, and other groups have just taken it from there. Hence the labyrinth. There are rooms on top of other rooms, some whose purposes aren’t even known anymore. Religious life to took place on the highest levels, with special (i.e., rich and important) guests in the middle and the poor travellers and pilgrims at the bottom.
We did go through the other two ‘museums’ (really, more sound and light shows) that were included in our ticket, but didn’t realize until the end that we could get headsets that would translate the shows into English. In the end, I would recommend to anyone going there to avoid the four-in-one ticket and just go for the Abbey.
Day Three was Remembrance Day, and we headed back to the Juno Beach Center for 11 am in case anything was happening there. They were going to have a ceremony, but not until 3 pm. We had other plans for the afternoon, so we couldn’t do the ceremony but we did take in the museum this time. I highly recommend it for any Canadians going to this area of France. It’s really well done and takes you through Canadian history and politics pre-WW2, into the war (with a special section each for Army, Navy and Air Force) and then finishes with an exhibit on what Canada is like today. There are lots of little audio-visual ad hands-on things as well as the typical reading.
We headed a little further down the coast and saw the remnants of the artificial port that that was built for the British at Gold Beach. Then we continued on to Omaha, which is the beach the Americans took and also had the most casualties. We didn’t go into any of the (many) museums that are available around there, but we did take a walk on the beach and take more pictures.
We had booked a room at a hotel in Arras for that night, so after spending most of the day on the beaches we headed inland again. The town of Lisieux is very close to where we were, so we stopped there on our way towards Arras. Lisieux is the home of Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux, and there are lots of things to see about her in the town. Unfortunately we got there around 5:00 pm and most things were already closed. Thankfully we did get to see the Basilica of Ste Thérèse, which was amazing. It was only finished in the 1950′s, but looks like one of the incredible old churches that took centuries to build. There are mosaics everywhere inside, as well as 18 small altars dedicated to the countries that contributed to the building of the basilica. Pope John Paul II visited there in 1980. There’s also a crypt under the basilica dedicated to the parents of Sainte Thérèse.
Eventually we did get to Arras, although again we hadn’t really bothered to get directions to our hotel so it took us quite a while to find it. By the time we did we were just happy to go to sleep.
Day Four was reserved for Vimy Ridge, which was really the original reason for the trip. And it was so worth it. It’s one of the most amazing paces I’ve ever been, and made me feel so proud to be Canadian. We got a tour of the trenches and tunnels from one of the guides (who are all Canadian students), and we spent a lot of time just walking around the site and being amazed by the memorial. It’s just…huge. And awe-inspiring. We also saw a few of the cemeteries on the site. They’re called Canadian cemeteries but actually include graves of soldiers from many nations. I was surprised to see how few of the tombstones include names. A lot of them at least have a regiment, but most are simply labeled ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.
After Vimy it was time to head back towards the airport and Ireland. One thing we learned about France (at least the part that we were visiting) is that the pace of life, especially when it comes to meals, is much more relaxed than we are used to. You’re supposed to take the time to sit down and really enjoy every meal. We tried to grab coffee and croissants before heading out on the road in the morning – doesn’t happen. You can get croissants from a bakery, but it’s almost impossible to find hot drinks to go. And coffee really only comes in two forms: coffee (single espresso) or large coffee (two espresso). Take-out and fast food are pretty uncommon too. We tried to get Chinese take-out, and it came cold. Apparently you can get the food, but then you’re supposed to go back to your home and heat it up. Doesn’t work so well when you’re in a hotel though. Normally I would prefer to sit down and enjoy a meal like they expected us to there, but often by the end of the day I was so tired of trying to speak French that I just wanted to eat in peace without having to really interact with anyone. Occasionally my French would be accepted without much comment or need to repeat myself, but often I was misunderstood or the person I was trying to talk to would just automatically switch to English. Which was sometimes nice but could be frustrating when I just wanted to practice my French and/or be understood without too much fuss.
Anyway! In a (rather large) nutshell, that was our trip to France. As a reward for making it this far, you get to look at our pictures now! I am rather too lazy to actually post any here, but there is a whole album on Flickr if you just click over here. Enjoy!