To Caen and Omaha and Juno Beaches in Normandy – Europe 2012

This is part of a set of pages describing our trip in March 2012 to Europe.

Tuesday, March 27th

We made an early start again because we had a 2 hour train ride to Caen.  Our proximity to the beaches at Normandy was an excellent opportunity to go and see them.  It was something that we were all interested in and yet, although Leila and I had been to Paris before, none of us had ever visited.

The trick of getting to the beaches is the last few miles.  Initially, we had planned on going to just one of the beaches because the mixture of trains and buses necessary would not allow for more than one.  We looked at taking a train to Caen and then a bus to Juno Beach (Courseulles-sur-mer) or a train to Bayeux and then a bus to Omaha beach (Vierville-sur-mer).  It is 2 hours by train to Caen, 3 to Bayeux.  Either way, it would be a long day.

It then occurred to us that we could rent a car for the day in Caen and then drive to both.  It would eliminate waiting and the potential for delays or misses that public transit creates. I realize this is practically blasphemy for World War II buffs.  There is a wealth of history here and to try to compact one beach, let alone two, into a single afternoon is a stretch.  It met our interests though, of seeing the beaches.  It was worth it, too, since on our return home, our eldest has been reading more about the D-Day landings, so they were just the right spark.

Our train arrived a bit late in Caen and then we walked down to the corner of the road in front of the train station, turned under the railway bridge, and there was the yellow sign of Hertz.  And it was closed.  We were fortunate that it was just minutes after noon, because the location is closed everyday from noon until 2pm.  This detail had escaped me when I was planning, in part because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that anything would close mid-day.  From what I can tell, the 2 hour lunch is getting rarer in France, and tends to only be honored outside of Paris.  But it was funny to go to such a well-known American brand and have it shuttered for lunch.  For two hours.

We sorted out the car and car seats – the rules were slightly different in France than in North America, based on weight – and off we went.  We had Google Map driving directions to get us where we were going.  Fortunately, I had driven enough in England that the frequent traffic circles (roundabouts) weren’t that much of a challenge.  Well, not after the first one.  This one had a stop light as well, and I wasn’t looking for it.  Luckily, I realized before I hared out into the traffic and after that, it was smooth sailing.

The countryside was quite pretty as we drove north and immediately rural.  There were plenty of signs to help us on our way and in about 20 minutes we reached Courseulles and navigated to the Juno Beach Centre.

Juno Beach

The Juno Beach Centre is a Canadian museum located on the beach where the 3d Canadian Infantry landed on D-Day.  You reach it by navigating through a twisty marina but it’s well sign posted and there’s plenty of parking at the Centre.  We were welcomed by a college-age Canadian volunteer who oriented us to the site.  It’s an interesting mixture of artifacts, multimedia, genealogical data, and Canadian history.

In fact, it was less about D-Day than we expected, and far more about Canada’s development as a colony and the approach to World War II.  This was particularly interesting for our family, since none of us had ever Canadian history in school.  Or not this part anyway; the 20th century is always done last, in a massive rush, after you’ve spent months in the minutiae of Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages.

It was not always a flattering portrayal.  It had the typical Canadian frankness about treatment of First Nations (like barring service in the Royal Canadian Air Force), but we were also surprised that there had been immigration restrictions until 1962 on blacks.  The centre tells a very clear story, though, about how pivotal World War II was for Canada’s attempt to distinguish itself from colonial ruler.

We went out to the beach, where our two boys were agreeable with my request that they storm the beach while I captured the video.  The youngest provided covering fire while the elder headed up the beach, and then followed with plenty of sound effects.

The Juno Beach Centre is an excellent Canadian museum – not a government one but supported by a non-profit foundation – but it’s as much or more about Canada and its people as it is about D-Day.  This was most noticeable when we reached Omaha beach.

Omaha Beach

This is perhaps the most famous of the 5 landing beaches (Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, Sword).  Many people will know of the beach based on films like Saving Private Ryan, which was filmed on location in Ireland but intended to be Omaha.  The drive from Juno to Omaha was very pretty, through some tight farm roads but all very scenic.  We passed the Big Red One’s museum at Colleville and turned in to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial above Omaha beach.

The experience was completely different from that at Juno.  There is a building with an impressive set of films, multimedia, and exhibits with exhibits about the landings.  Unlike the Juno Beach Centre, it is free to visit.  As soon as you enter, you are immersed in what happened during the landings and immediately afterwards.  It’s an almost overwhelming experience.  As you move through the underground exhibit, you start to hear the intoning of names of soldiers who, presumably, died at Omaha.

We walked through the cemetery and then took the path down to the beach.  It is an amazing height, especially as you walk down through the cleft where the path has been paved.  It’s impossible to really imagine what it would have been like to attempt to capture this hill.  The boys ran along the dunes while our daughter took pictures of the ocean (or Channel, I suppose) and the hordes of tourists walked along the beach.

There is a second path, to the east of the cemetery, and we returned up that way.  It is not a paved path but it takes you past two of the German bunkers and eventually meets up with the original, paved pathway.  Our youngest had been wounded on the beach – some sort of thorn had stuck him in the hand – so I was now carrying him on my shoulders.  Carrying 45 lbs on my back, up the hill, at least gave me additional appreciation for what the soldiers must have been doing, under fire, 70 years ago.

We drove back to Caen, catching the rush hour traffic through the city.  It would be the sort of place to stop for a week, to see not only the World War II history in the area but also the castle and local history, including going over to Bayeux to see the tapestry.  We dropped off the car, had sandwiches at the train station, and then caught the train back to Paris.

The train was packed.  It was the first time that having reservations would have ensured we could sit together in the first class seats.  There was at least one tour group and there were all sorts of argy-bargy about who was sitting where.  In the end, we found a few seats in 1st class but we were dispersed.  As well-behaved as our children are, we didn’t feel it was fair to leave them with a businessman and his laptop while we sat elsewhere!  So my daughter and I went off to the next coach, which was 2d class and practically empty.  We found an empty space with 8 seats and all relocated there.  It was much more enjoyable, as we had plenty of space and windows on both sides.  It was more like a Harry Potter carriage – with many small rooms rather than one long, open carriage – than any other train we’d ridden on so far.  A nice, old fashioned way to finish the trip!

We arrived at Gare St. Lazare, took the metro back to Pigalle, and went to sleep.  Our only activity tomorrow will be getting to the airport and flying home.

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