Off To a Great Start in Normandy

The street where we’re staying in Balleroy. It’s pretty much the only street in town, actually.

Although we felt like we had barely gotten started in Paris, yesterday morning it was time for us to head west to Normandy. We were up early, and somehow got our big suitcases over to St. Lazare station to catch our train(s) out to Caen. We had stairways to deal with in a couple of places, but we worked out a system where Brett would carry one suitcase to the bottom of the stairs, then he would run back up for the second while I got down to the first suitcase as quickly as possible. Thankfully we didn’t have to do that more than a few times!

The train ride to Caen was fast and comfortable. We rode in second class, but it seemed closer to first in our opinion. We enjoyed watching the scenery change from city to countryside as we went along, and had a bit of excitement when a couple of security police climbed on our car at one station. They were very businesslike and quickly moved to the next car so we didn’t think too much about it until they got off a couple of stations later and we realized these guys had not come to play! There were actually four of them, and they were all fully weaponized and wearing bullet-proof gear. We have no idea what or who they were looking for but it was slightly scary to think what might have brought them on our train.

We’re staying in a lovely little apartment up above the double doors on the right (where the farm wagon would have been parked in the past).

Picking up our car after we arrived in Caen was easy but getting out of town and on our way to Balleroy was less easy. Our VW Golf came equipped with GPS but it took us a few tries to get that figured out (everything is in French!) and a few wrong turns before we were finally on our way. Our apartment in Balleroy is very comfortable, and just the right size for a few days’ stay. Our hosts are warm and friendly, and they stocked the refrigerator for us with orange juice, milk and a bottle of homemade sparkling cider (delicious!). Balleroy has one market, one charcuterie and one boulangerie, so we headed out before the sun went down for provisions and coffee and croissants for our next morning’s breakfast.

Brett woke up around 6:30 to the sound of tractors rumbling down the street, but all my lack of sleep from jet lag must have finally caught up with me because I slept soundly until 10:00 a.m. – and I wasn’t wearing earplugs! We were on the road by noon though and although the temperature was nearly 20 degrees cooler than it was in Paris, the sun was shining so we headed out to visit the Normandy D-Day beaches.

The old church in Vierville, just north of Caretan, on the way to Utah Beach.

We drove up through Carentan, where the Band of Brothers (Easy Company, 82nd Airborne Division) had fought so fiercely soon after landing in Normandy and headed to our first stop, Utah Beach. As I know more about the landings at Omaha Beach compared to Utah Beach, we decided to go through the museum there before walking down to the beach. We spent quite a bit of time in the museum as the displays were quite detailed and informative.

Utah Beach

It was short walk over to the beach from the museum, and humbling for both of us to stand there and think of the men coming up on that long, wide beach on D-Day, being fired upon and yet not giving up. It is an aspect of war that I have never been able to grasp, how soldiers, sailors and airmen went forward into intense, life-threatening danger or dangerous situations and kept going, even when they were afraid or terrified. But they did, and seeing the immensity of the beach today and the distance the American troops had to go literally took my breath away. Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was a general, came ashore on Utah Beach under heavy fire and led the assault (he was the highest ranking person to come ashore during the initial landings). Even though he was suffering from heart problems and crippling arthritis that caused him to walk with a cane, his presence on the beach motivated the soldiers to keep going. He died on July 12 in France, of a heart attack, and is buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy.

La Pointe du Hoc. American Rangers scaled the vertical cliffs in order to disarm the German guns at the top.

Leaving Utah Beach, we headed west to visit La Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. While the sun continued to shine, the wind had picked up and it was about all we could do to stay on our feet when we got to La Pointe du Hoc. The ground at the point is still heavily marked with craters created by shells primarily from the battleship USS Texas (those battleships had some HUGE guns) that were fired before the D-Day invasion. La Pointe du Hoc had been heavily fortified by the German army, and the remains of some of the bunkers and gun placements could be seen in and around the craters, but a couple of the bunkers survived intact. The shelling only took out one of the guns, but caused the German army to move and hide the guns about one kilometer back in from the beach. The U.S. Rangers that climbed the cliffs at Point du Hoc on D-Day suffered massive losses (255 set out; only 90 were able to complete the mission), but they found and destroyed the German guns and ammunition before heading on to Omaha Beach. The guns had been aimed at Utah Beach.

A German observation bunker at La Pointe du Hoc
Looking out from the observation bunker. There were several rooms below ground there  for munitions, communication and possibly living quarters.

Leaving La Pointe du Hoc, we had a short but pleasant drive down to Omaha Beach (we hadn’t know before today that Pointe du Hoc is actually an official part of the Omaha Beach landing area). As we drove, it was not difficult to pick out buildings along the way that had been there before and during the war, and we wondered about the people who had lived there, or whether Americans or Germans had fought around those buildings or occupied them, or had marched or walked down the roads we were traveling on.

Omaha Beach looking east. The light lines are actually sand being blown across the beach (the sand at both beaches was extremely fine).
Omaha Beach, looking west toward La Pointe du Hoc.
A view of Omaha Beach at the end of the day, June 6, 1944.

Omaha beach was much, much larger than we imagined, and looking up at the hills just off of the beach was again a very humbling experience for both Brett and I. Today the hills are covered with beautiful houses, hotels and restaurants, but the thought of the American soldiers coming off their landing boats, advancing up that beach in the open with the Germans firing down on them in order to climb and overtake those hills was almost too much for Brett and I to contemplate. Again I wondered, how did they do it? How could they do it, especially being out in the open with so many around them dead or dying in the attempt?

“Les Braves” is a sculpture erected on Omaha Beach in 2005 to honor the courage of the men who came ashore on D-Day to help free France.

We had planned to finish the day with a visit to the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, but we arrived just as they were closing (5:00 p.m.) so we will go back tomorrow in the morning.

One of the many lovely views from the car as we drove through the Normandy countryside.

We had a lovely drive back to Balleroy – almost everything, whether a village or farmland, was beautiful beyond measure. I’m wondering though how anyone not from here ever figured out how to get around the area before GPS! Thanks to the system in the car along with my phone’s GPS talking us through the route, we were able to drive along some lovely back roads versus having to get on a less-attractive expressway. The leaves haven’t begun to change yet, but we could sure see and feel the change of seasons coming to the area.

We had Mimolette and Roquefort cheeses, pate, seeded baguette, Muscat grapes and one last Mirabelle plum to go with our wine.

We had wine, cheese, some paté and grapes when we got back to the apartment, and then got out our maps to plan tomorrow’s journey. We hope to visit the American cemetery first thing in the morning as it’s less than a half hour away (weather permitting – rain is possible tomorrow) and then will head over to visit Mont St. Michel.

20 thoughts on “Off To a Great Start in Normandy

  1. My father went in on Utah Beach. Les was watching Band of Brothers one night and I sat up straight when they were at the Battle of the Hedgerows! Not too many knew about that but my father used to tell me in great detail. He was stuck in a trench for many hours with bullets skimming over him. July Fourth was not his favorite day because of that experience. He was with the 802 Tank Destroyers Battalion. He stayed on the front lines for the entire war and then was head of a displace persons’ camp in Pilsen for 6 months after the war.

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    1. I remember you telling me about your dad and his experiences. The hedgerows are still all over the place and you could see what a pain it would be to get through them or maneuver around them. I think the battle your dad was talking about took place in Carentan (which is where all the hedgerow battles took place in Band of Brothers). We drove through the town on our way to Utah Beach, but it’s quite large and modern now and you would never know of the fighting that took place there as you could tell with other places.

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    1. Thanks! I’ve been using my phone for pictures even though I brought along my camera. It’s now been relegated to the suitcase versus my backpack because I was never using it and got tired of carrying it around on my back.

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  2. Most likely the security police were checking for migrants without papers- they do that frequently on the trains it seems.

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    1. OK, that makes sense but it was still something of a surprise to discover how heavily armed they were (we hadn’t noticed the weapons when they walked through the car). Brett said he had seen a man acting very fidgety and nervous in our car but that he got off at the station before the security police got on.

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  3. My grandfather drove a tanker up on Utah beach. He was injured and was transported to England for medical care. I often think about my grandma who didn’t know if her new husband was alive or not for months after that incident. Grandpa had trouble with his injuries but we were able to enjoy him into his 80s. I think all the veterans and their families from that time showed tremendous courage.

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    1. A big thank you to your grandfather and for what he did. It must have been awful for your grandmother. There was one exhibit at the museum that contained memorabilia from sailors who had died when their ship was sunk of Utah Beach on D-Day, things like Christmas cards they had kept, letters from wives and girlfriends, and so forth. I began crying and couldn’t finish looking at everything, thinking about their families back home, not knowing for so many days what had happened to their family member or loved one, and not knowing how much their sailor had treasured their letters and cards.

      There were also large pictures of several American veterans in the museum at Utah Beach, and some quotes, and the one that is staying with me was the Utah Beach veteran saying, after 60 years, that he still remembered every single detail of that day like it had just happened and was pretty sure every other veteran did too.

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  4. These pictures really bring back memories of our trip to Normandy. Many of the same sites. The beaches were profoundly moving, and, like you, I can’t imagine after seeing Pointe du Hoc, how anyone kept climbing in that exposed spot with enemy fire around them. Boggles the mind.

    My FIL was shot down over the Falaise Gap, and we wandered out into the countryside (in a thick fog) to find the small museum at the top of that valley. The fog cleared while we toured the museum, and the bucolic valley with sheep grazing below was an unbelievable contrast to the stories of how that battle played out. My FIL was hospitalized in England for months, and his history has really affected my DH, who is a WWII historian compared to me. He answered most of my questions everywhere we went. I hope you get to tour the cemetery…it’s SO powerful.

    And the cheese and bread. We must go back.

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    1. BTW, the tour guide at the Falaise Museum told us they were still finding human remains in the area, and in fact had found bones near the parking lot in the previous six months.

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      1. I had to go look up the Falaise Gap and now have more studying to do. My dad served in the Pacific, so lots of the European battles, including those that happened in France, are unknown to me.

        That’s amazing that they are still finding bones this recently.

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    2. We went to the cemetery this morning, in the rain. I honestly almost could not breath when we walked out into the cemetery. So many graves, so many lost, and so many without a name. I was thinking that all the graves were of the dead from D-Day, but apparently if you survived D-Day but then were killed in Europe afterwards you would still be buried here (like the lieutenant in Saving Private Ryan).

      Brett and I said we could spend years here checking things out, and delving into the history. We are already plotting how and when we can come back.

      We have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cheese here. All of it has been delicious though. And, I want to live above a boulangerie!

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  5. How you and Brett have so easily slipped into the world traveler mode is something to behold. You write in a way that makes anyone with a sense of adventure want to follow in your footsteps. And, if the words don’t do it, the photos will.

    Like you, we have moved to just a phone camera for the last few trips, including the Rhine River cruise in May. The Nikon digital camera was just dead weight. Actually it was stolen upon our return (at a church no less!) and we have given no thought to replacing it.

    Question: Have you felt that such a limited amount of clothing and supplies has been a problem? You are less than two months in, but that is probably enough time to decide if your choices were on target.

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    1. So far the amount of clothes we brought along has been just about right. As long as we have laundry facilities available we’re fine, and we brought enough that we can mix things up as we go along so we don’t get bored with the same things over and over. Having lugged our suitcases around a bit by now, up and down stairs and yanked off luggage carousels, neither of us is interested in adding any more weight to what we have now; in fact, both Brett and I are constantly thinking of how we can lighten our loads! Brett left one pair of jeans he didn’t enjoy wearing in Uruguay, but otherwise everything we brought is still with us.

      The past couple of weeks have felt a bit hectic, and that we didn’t allow ourselves enough time in Montevideo, Paris and now Normandy. We head for Strasbourg on Monday, and will be there for 20 days, long enough to actually unpack our bags and hang up our clothes as well as take whole days off to relax, something we haven’t been able to do much of yet. We’re definitely enjoying the journey so far though!

      I am going to have to buy a new phone when we get back to the States in December because the battery in my phone is failing (the phone is getting old anyway). I have a portable battery I can use to recharge, but it’s something of a pain to remember to alway bring along. Today we set out and were pretty close to our destination when I noticed my battery was getting low. I had brought the portable battery but had forgotten the charging cord! So, we didn’t dare go too far today as all we had was Brett’s phone for photos and GPS (absolutely necessary here in Normandy).

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  6. The cider is so great because there are like 800 kinds of apples in the area. There is actually a cider route. Having spent over a full week in Normandy if I were to say anything it’s that sometimes the dedication to the beaches makes you miss all the cool stuff like the pottery, the normandy tapestries in Bayeux and the apple brandy. I do say that as someone who saw all the beaches and sites from the eastern most side to the Pegasus. If we have one”we should have”, it’s not taking the helicopter out on the water to see that view of the Pont. But they would have had to peel my hands from the pilot’s back.

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    1. The cider was delicious! It did not last long with us. If we had the time, the cider route sounds like something we’d love to do (as long as we had plenty of battery life in our phones for GPS – I honestly can’t imagine how people got around here without it).

      We drove through a major pottery village today on our way back from Bayeux, where we did visit the tapestry (incredible!) and the cathedral. Both Brett and I would like to have more time here to visit more places associated with the war versus just the beaches and the cemetery. The view of Omaha Beach today from the cemetery (the view the Germans would have had of the Americans landing) was very sobering – I can only imagine what it would look like coming in from the water.

      We are already plotting when and how we can get back here to Normandy.

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  7. Amazing adventure you are having. It sounds like you will have to consider this trip “a taste of travel”. After this you can decide where to return for the full meal. I’m glad your are enjoying it and I thank you for sharing. It’s almost like being there.

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    1. We’ve been moving around a bit more frequently these past two weeks then will from here on out. We’re looking forward to unpacking our suitcases for a while when we get to Strasbourg (we’ll be there 20 nights). We wish we had given ourselves more time in Paris and Normandy, but I know we’ll be back and stay longer than we did on this trip. We will have to budget differently though – Paris was expensive, but Normandy has been very affordable.

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