One of the biggest surprises about living in France has been the incredible differences between each of the different regions throughout this relatively small country. Every region has its own personality- each is known for different specialty foods/wines while having their own own natural and historical landmarks as well, it’s as if each region has a completely different personality while still all maintaining their shared French identity at the same time.
I am certain that if we had chosen to stay in France for all the many school vacation breaks the boys have had throughout these 3 years and not have travelled to any other countries, we still would not have had a chance to see all the many different places we have hoped to visit. Each for different reasons!
The one region we had not yet visited was Normandy. Not only were we anxious to explore the historical, aesthetic and culinary attributes of this northern coastal French countryside, as American ex-pats living here in France, it was an absolute on our list. We knew it would be less about having fun and more about this incredible opportunity to teach the boys about this important part of our history!
Charlie’s 13th birthday fell during our April break. We celebrated him a bit earlier in the week with dinner out with his bestie, Lucas.
It was fun to have the whole day together that Friday (the boys were out of school) so after opening presents at lunchtime, we finished organizing and left late afternoon.
Our plans were to drive to Tours, up in the Loire Valley region and spend the night in order to break the trip up a bit.
By the time we got to our hotel, it was already 8:30 and the hotel restaurant was so traditional French, none of us could really picture foie gras, steak tartare or blood sausage for Charlie’s birthday dinner. Almost every restaurant that looked good within close driving distance was closing in the next hour or so, so we really only had one option nearby, called Poivre Rouge (Red Pepper).
We had seen it here and there in our travels, so we figured it was a chain restaurant similar to Ruby Tuesday’s, or TGIFridays… Not ideal, but the menu had a lot of choices (besides the usual French ones). They even had a salad bar (which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in France). When we walked in, there was definitely an awkwardness to the place. We’ve gotten used to eating in old restaurants that look run down and have had some of our best meals in places like that. You definitely can’t judge a restaurant by its appearance here in France!
But this place felt like they were trying really hard to “look” nice but instead it was just cheesy. It didn’t feel French.
The boys were crazy as usual after a 4 hour car ride and we were sat right next to a couple clearly on a date. Having the 5 of us be seated so closeby, I”m sure was a mood-killer.. The meal was just OK, but they did have really good looking desserts. We were excited about having them bring Charlie cake with a candle (like another table nearby), until we noticed that the menu clearly stated you must have ID as proof of birthdate, of which we had none for Charlie with us. He still had a big profiterole sundae and after that and a face-time home to grandparents, it was the perfect end to his big 13.
The next morning we woke up and drove 3 hours into the beautiful rolling countryside of Normandy. We stopped in Honfleur, an adorably charming small port town right on the eastern most edge of Normandy.
Wells had quite a fall when we first arrived and it was also much warmer and sunnier than we’d been expecting that day. So, after a detour to find bandaids and sunblock (pharmacies were closed for lunch) we were finally on our way.
Markets were selling beautiful seafood, cheeses, etc. and shops advertised salted butter caramels, Guerande sea salt, Cider and Calvados (a very strong apple liqueur). Walking through the cobblestone streets, there was definitely a very nautical feel to it.
The houses and shops had a very unique half-timbered wooden facade.
With it’s fishing boats, unique looking houses and tiny restaurants and cafes tucked along quaint cobblestoned streets, the town was absolutely charming and picturesque and has inspired many famous French artists through the centuries, including Monet.
We ate at The Cidrerie, with a menu consisting of sweet or savory crepes (galettes), apple juice and cider. Our crepes were filling, but we had been starving and the boys loved the sparkling apple cider they served on tap.
Shortly after as we were exploring, Owen had a bad nosebleed and so we had to get him to lie flat alongside an old building in a tiny courtyard. Of course, I had no tissues, so it was back to the pharmacy (which was now open) where I stocked up. Luckily he was back on his feet after 20-30 minutes 🙂
We drove to another town nearby, Trouville, which Chuck had read about and after walking around a bit, we visited Villa Gypsy, a precious coffee shop with French-made as well as imported housewares from elsewhere in Europe- bowls, candles, rugs, pillows, shoes, etc. We left the boys outside (as we usually do- they can be 3 bulls in a china shop) and wandered through the cafe, but we didn’t stay long; the boys were getting antsy outside. As we grabbed our to-go coffees and walked out, I looked back longingly at different people sitting in the courtyard of the cafe, quietly chatting, sipping coffee and nibbling on the most incredibly amazing looking desserts. As I’ve mentioned a million times before, there are not many places I enjoy spending time in more than a coffee shop.
We had to forego ice cream in the next village secondary to less-than-ideal behavior, so on we drove to Bernières-sur-Mer, a village perched on the coast, at Juno Beach, the site of where the Canadian troops disembarked on D-Day where we’d be staying for the next few days.
There, we found a tiny little village with several streets, a church, a bakery, a tabac and just a few shops. We were staying in a gîte, (like a small air b&b) that was in a complex with several others, and a tiny common grassy courtyard.
As we unloaded, we noticed many people walking towards the town center, carrying a dish or a bottle of wine. We found out later that they were on their way to celebrate Easter mass that evening at their village church.
Our gîte was small but had 3 floors with the top floor being more like an attic. It was very old & simple, but had everything we needed (except for heat, which really only ever bothers me, not the boys/Chuck)… we grabbed a few things at the grocery that could be cooked on the stovetop or microwave, as there was no oven.
The next morning was Easter (Pâques, in French) and we were curious to visit the bakery, as we’d witnessed a long line of people the evening before and relieved to see that it was open! Getting up and going early was worth it, the line was just getting started…
The church in the center of town was much bigger than other churches we’d seen in tiny villages. I wandered inside to see what time Easter services might be, only to find that we’d missed it- it had been the night before and the nearest town was miles away. It felt weird to think about missing a service on Easter Sunday.
We wanted to spend the next few days really learning about D-Day and what life was like for both the French whose country had been stolen from them during those 4 years, as well as for the Allied troops, who risked everything to save Europe (and possibly the world) from Nazi Germany.
First, we visited Arromanche, a beachside town next to the beautiful blue sea. We started at Arromanche 360, a museum with 9 large screens housed in a circular room that sits atop the cliffs overlooking Arromanche.
Once entering, we were directed into a circular theatre where we watched a 20 minute film about Operation Overlord on D-Day and the few months following. There was an incredible souvenir shop with everything pertinent to Operation Overlord, D-Day and WWII. There were American flags, T-shirts, hats, books in English along with the same items in French. It felt almost surreal to walk into a store such as this and see our own flag!
Owen chose a cricket, a small metallic device that, when you squeeze it, letting out an audible “click” and was used by the US Paratroopers during the night preceding the early am embarkment. As they were the first to drop onto land, they were landing in the dark into unknown and enemy territory, they used these devices as a way to communicate their whereabouts and identity with other allies without giving themselves away by speaking English.
After the museum, we walked down the path into the seaside town.
The views were amazing!!!
Alongside the beach, there are still remnants of the giant cement Mulberry harbours that were put into place by the British during D Day and the period following to serve as temporary harbours where they could unload troops, equipment, supplies, etc.
Thinking we would just grab a quick bite before heading on towards some other places, we ended up having some incredible seafood. It was a nice little place where you walked up to the counter and ordered one of probably only 8 or 9 choices. Such a simple menu, yet I’m pretty sure the calamari Charlie ordered was the best I’ve ever tasted.
Next we drove to the German Cemetery, known as La Cambe. As the largest WWII military cemetery in Normandy, we had been told by numerous people that while your first instinct is to skip it, it was essential to visit and to see the contrast between it and the American Memorial Cemetery. When initially reflecting on the atrocious crimes toward humanity that were committed at the hands of the Germans, it doesn’t feel necessarily natural to feel sympathy and sadness towards them. But, thinking about how so many died such a useless death fighting for such a sick and twisted ideology, this final resting place of over 21,000 German WWII soldiers was a very sad place.
As we drove in, we saw this peace garden where over 1200 very strange appearing maple trees that had been planted along the entrance…
The parking lot was small and there weren’t many visitors.
There were hundreds of grey schist crosses scattered in small solitary groups as far back as the eye could see definitely evoked a dark, haunting feeling.
As we walked along and studied the brick cross-shaped plaques that lie atop each double grave, each were marked by the name of the soldier and dates of birth/death. We were struck over and over again by how young so many of the were, as young as 16, 17, 18 years old!
And there were so many that had never been identified….
In the middle of the cemetery towards the entrance is a large mound which you can climb up to by way of stairs and look out over the cemetery.
Next, we drove to the American Cemetery. Pulling up into the massive parking lot surrounded by buses and tourists everywhere, we then parked and walked along absolutely beautiful stone walkway with an infinity fountain towards the gravesite. As you come up to the crest of the cliffs, the instant view of the blue sea almost took my breath away….
As we walked along, the lush green grass and pine trees line a walkway that offers a distant view of Omaha Beach down below. It was impossible not to stop, look down and not be overwhelmed by emotion, thinking about the events that took place on that beautiful beach just 75 years ago.
I was struck by how, even before visiting the graveside, how much bigger the cemetery was than La Cambe.
As the final resting place to 9,385 American soldiers who were killed during D-Day landing and subsequent Allied Operations leading up to the end of WWII, it is less than half the number of German soldiers at La Cambe in comparison. I learned later that many Americans were initially buried at La Cambe, with they and the German soldiers resting in 2 adjacent fields. Later, 2/3 of them were taken back to America, the remainder were moved here.
All that I could think about that entire Easter day was just how brave not one man, but thousands and thousands could be to face what was certain death for many to rescue nations of people that were not their own. Every single soldier buried there was a hero.
It seemed so poignant to be able to spend a beautiful sunny Easter day visiting here, a day where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be free.
As we made our way past the reflecting pool, we saw these large maps made from marble that identified and laid out all the landings- air and water that took place in an effort to construct the Beachhead, a term used to signify the vital takeover of the beaches and push the Germans further inland in order to preserve a way for reserve troops, supplies, equipment to come onto land.
As we drove from place to place, we couldn’t get over how beautiful this countryside was in Normandy. Living in Auvergne, central France, we are no stranger to beautiful rolling countryside, but this was different. As one of the biggest dairy producers in France, (hello, the land of butter and cheese!) this region is covered in lush meadow-y green dotted with chateaus, abbeys, and farms encased in old crumbling stone walls and hedges… in one direction, there are countless cows and horses, and in the other, the sea not far off in the distance…. it felt like a storybook.
One tiny village leads to another and to another. So many have been able to preserve their original charm, continuing their small industries unique to this area and have so successfully resisted the certain commercialism that comes with being located in such a tourist-rich region.
When we arrived back to our place that late afternoon, everything nearby was closed. We decided to have cereal, apples and cheese for dinner… a little jealous thinking about all the wonderful feasting that was going on around us throughout France. The French always have a huge lamb feast on Easter. After playing a few games, we decided to go for a walk around the village and maybe find a spot to play Bocce with our new set we had found for 4 Euros at the grocery store the day before.
As we walked, we stopped to see the various memorials situated throughout the village.
It was touching to see little tributes here and there acknowledging just how integral that day, June 6, 1944 still is to the lives of those who live here.
We came upon this tiny entrance that opened up in a stone wall extending along the road and when peering in, saw the most magical little park hiding behind it.
As we entered, we had the entire park (which actually was quite large!) to ourselves! It was so quiet, just the sounds of seagulls off in the distance.
The boys were thrilled. They ran and ran from one thing to the next- the swings, slide, merry-go-round, laughing. Seeing this made me a tiny bit nostalgic and maybe even sad that these last few years living in an apartment have limited them from being able to run and play in a simple little park like this as we would do back home when they were younger. At times, it was parks like this that brought fresh air and respite at the end of a long day with 3 active little people. They are growing up so quickly that I know it is just a matter of time before a simple park like this will bring them so much joy, even just for a few minutes.
It turns out, it was a great place to play bocce.
We even found a tiny petanque court in the back corner of the park.
Petanque is essentially the same game as bocce but with heavy silver balls and a few other minor differences. It is a very popular pastime for men, especially the retired who will gather in parks in every city, town and village throughout France and onto sandy petanque courts. At times, they even hold official tournaments! Its a big thing here.
As we played, the sunset behind the far wall began to showcase the most beautiful shades of pink and orange, it was subtle at first, but over 15 or 20 minutes slowly evolved into one of the most beautiful evening skies I have ever seen. A perfect ending to a different kind of Easter Sunday.
The more we explored Bernières-sur-Mer, we continued to find little secrets hidden behind old stone walls… One morning as Chuck and I went for an early run, we came up on this stone gate and behind it was this big beautiful private chateau…
As we ran along Juno Beach, it was low tide and all along the boardwalk was lined with small houses, some of which had Canadian flags hanging out front.
There were even people riding horses along the edge of the water. It was just unreal.
All along, there were plaques with interesting facts about this beach and the Canadian embarkment at this point on D-Day. We read about how one of the most interesting pieces of military equipment unloaded from ships for use in the allied invasion were the hundreds of bicycles that would allow soldiers to travel between villages more quickly and easily than on foot or in large tanks. Fascinating!
That day, we wanted to return to Omaha beach itself to spend some time there, but on the way we wanted to visit a few other towns we had read about.
Bayeux was our first stop, a town that is actually famous for its Tapestry Museum which houses the worlds’s longest tapestry (embroidered cloth) at 70 meters long, at is 9 centuries old! As I’m sure it would have been interesting to see this Romanesque work of art depicting images preceding the Norman conquest of England, we couldn’t sell the boys. And we were ok with that.
From a WWII standpoint, Bayeux was the first major town to be successfully secured by the Allied Forces shortly after the D-Day landing on the nearby beaches. Lots of history here…
For a town with a population of only 13,000, Bayeux had the most impressive cathedral in it’s center that we wandered into. Built in the 11th century, the Norman Cathedral was enormous and the stained glass windows were gorgeous!
In many ways, it reminded us of our cathedral here in Clermont.. a lighter version (ours is made from black volanic rock).
It happened to be sitting under the most beautiful cottony blue sky.
This town is also home to many lacemakers, some of which, as I read, is made for Paris couture houses! Unfortunately, we were only able to see some handmade lace items from the windows, since it was Easter Monday and most shops were closed. We were able to stop in a few shops so that we could buy Calvados, cider and salted butter caramels… there was no way we could leave Normandy without these things!
We had read about a cider orchard called Les Vergers de Ducy, and though we didn’t have time to visit, we were excited to find his cider in this same shop!
We drove onto Port-en-Bassin, a port-town that was an important victory for the Allied forces in the few days following D-Day. Captured by the British marines, this town was to be used to install pipelines through which vital fuel could be emptied into by tankers off-shore in operation PLUTO (pipelines under the ocean).
We walked along the streets where old fishing boats were docked directly alongside and in the shops were tons of mariner-striped clothing!
The boys had ice cream and we wandered up into the cliffs where there was still evidence of cement lookout towers that were used by the Germans.
Unfortunately the path higher up onto the cliffs was blocked with signage designating the area unsafe and any further climbing was prohibited.
Down below, we saw many people on the beach picking up rocks or shells and skimming them into the ocean. We wandered down to take a look and found the most incredible collection of these beautiful white and terracotta colored thin shells.
There were millions of them and though there were people walking all over them, stooping down to look closer, many of them were perfectly intact!
We found out later that they were scallop shells (Saint-Jacques), and since we aren’t big scallop eaters, we weren’t familiar with these unique-looking shells!
We then drove to Omaha Beach and when we arrived, the skies were growing darker and a light mist was coming down. With the sun gone, it was quite cool and breezy. In a way, it made it easier to imagine what the weather was like on D-Day when the soldiers came ashore.
As we walked onto the beach, I was struck by the hundreds of people walking along the shore; families with kids and dogs playing in the sand, flying kites on the very same sands, the buzz of jet-skis zooming along a bit further out in the very same water where one of the bloodiest battles in US history took place so recently ago. Just 75 years!
But then, I realized that this was what those thousands and thousands of brave men came, fought, and died for- so that this beautiful country of France (and the rest of Europe!) could be free. So that people could reclaim the liberty to live, work, travel and play freely and without oppression, violence, and unjust imprisonment.
We played a little more bocce and Owen and Wells then spent some time really burying themselves down into the sand.
Later, as the rain started to come down, we headed back to our village. Chuck and I had serendipitously found a tiny nearby seaside restaurant that morning on our run that we had made reservations for that night, Au Pere Tranquille.
As we arrived, it was pretty chilly and overcast and I was regretting my earlier request that we be seated outside. But when we arrived, the hostess had reserved a table for us tucked back off of the terrace with heaters, away from the wind. It was just perfect.
Sitting out on that cozy little terrace, it felt like we were in the South of France. The white tables, candles, and beautiful pink hydrangeas, everything was just perfect.
After we ordered, the boys hit the beach to run and play.
We gave them our camera and challenged them to see who could take the best beach picture. Expecting to find photos of shells, dunes, the ocean, what we found was even sweeter.
After being together non-stop for over a week with many hours in the car together and living in tight quarters too, the boys had been really getting to each other. More fighting than we’d like to remember. But as they ran off to play, Chuck and I were able to sit with a cocktail (he- the mojito- the best in the area we read! and me, a spritz, of course) and have a quiet dinner together (cheers!) and think about what buddies they really are.
During the last 2 years, they have missed their friends desperately, and while they have made a few friends here, it is really each other that they lean on the most.
We sampled the house specialty, the “Pere Tranquille” shrimp, that were insanely good. My salad had little goat cheese samosas, Chuck had fish & chips. The boys had mini pizzas, chicken and fries, and Owen’s mi-cuit (molten lava cake) was gone in less than a minute:)
It was a Monday night and the restaurant cleared out fast after dark.. We sat and talked with our waiter a bit- born here in France to Turkish parents about life here vs. back home (for us, the US; for his parents- Turkey).
We all agreed how special this little place was. We hadn’t seen many other restaurants around our village and to find this gem that morning on our run felt serendipitous.
As we wandered home, I was sad to think about leaving Normandy the next morning. It was so much more charming and unique than I had ever imagined and the images and places we visited were beyond impactful. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that we were able to learn firsthand, up-close just how heroic a nation we come from.