Today we took a break from bustling Paris to visit the quieter towns of Bayeux and Colleville-sur-Mer, the site of the Omaha Beach landings and now the Normandy American Cemetery.
We knew Bayeux was going to be a small town as soon as we stepped off the train onto a single outdoor platform–their entire train station. The town looked very nice, though, as we walked towards our first destination: the Bayeux Tapestry museum.
I’d read about the Tapestry before, but it was certainly mich more impressive in person. Technically, it’s not a tapestry at all, rather a 70 meter long embroidered cloth that depicts the Battle of Hastings and the crowning of William I of Normandy, considered by many to be the first king of England.
As a bit of an embroidery hobbyist myself, I can’t even imagine how long it would have taken to stitch together something as large and as detailed as this, especially since they had to also make the cloth and thread themselves!
After the museum, we had an hour to explore a bit of Bayeux and grab a bite to eat. The most prominent thing about the city was how many flags were flying from countries all over Europe and beyond. In particular there were a lot of British and American flags–the Cathedral even had two Union Jacks flying right alongside the French flags at the top! Bayeux clearly remembers their history with much endearment, as the flags reflect. They were the first city to be liberated during the Battle of Normandy in WWII, and Charles de Gaulle gave important speeches there during the final year of the war to rally the French people. Bayeux also has one of the largest cemeteries for British soldiers and still hosts annual memorials for British troops of WWII.
If you’re ever in Bayeux for lunch, their fish is said to be exceptionally good, and I recommend a good Norman-style fish and chips meal to everyone.
The mood became more somber as we got on the bus to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. I think for most of us, we had conflicted emotions between the joy of seeing the ocean and the knowledge of what took place there on D-Day.
The museum and memorial were really touching, and of course walking through the cemetery and just seeing the sheer volume of lives lost was a bit hard. Some people, however, said that these sites fill them with a sense of pride for the United States.
After the memorial, we walked down to the beach. The most striking thing was how difficult it was to walk down the hill even with clear pathways, and it really put into perspective how difficult the Normandy landings would have been in 1944, especially under heavy fire and with the coastlines being fortified. It was also interesting to see all the French sunbathers and beach-goers who can enjoy these beaches during their summer holiday because of the sacrifices of the Allied forces on the 6th June, 1944.
Finally, after the visit we talked about our impressions of the site, if we think America still keeps WWII in our memory the way the people of Normandy do, and other things related to our program and international relations in general. After a long day (and a quick stop at the local antique store), we hopped back on the train to Paris to be well rested for our free day tomorrow.