Because Americans (like my husband) don’t blink at a 3.5 hour drive both ways in one day, we decide to “zip” up to Normandy from Paris. We get into our rental car and cruise to the Northwest coast to recall the final days of World War II.
My sister-in-law recommended the audio book The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan when we met her in Barcelona. I download it to my phone and we listen to this intense book on the ride to Normandy. We are engrossed in the details leading up to the Allied Invasion.
Our first stop is Omaha beach. We visit two prominent memorials at this spot on the sunny beach, shading our eyes with our hands and squinting out over the water. Can we see England? No, we cannot. But the story of D-Day 1944 is alive in our minds.
We enter the Omaha Beach Museum in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. At home we live close to Washington DC so we are accustomed to Smithsonian Museums: The highest quality professional exhibits inside state-of-the-art buildings. By contrast this place feels like a WWII buff fashioned a museum in their cinder-block basement from a huge collection of memorabilia and charged for entry. There’s a video that I’m 100% certain is playing from a VHS tape somewhere behind the scenes. Still, the stories are genuinely memorable. Nazi flags, honor medals, uniforms, letters and newspaper articles reach through time. The unsophisticated and amateurish medium fades and the remaining effect is powerful.
We visit the Omaha beach American cemetery. It’s overwhelming. And solemn. There are both crosses and Star of David markers.
We drive to another town in Normandy, Arromanches-les-Bains, to visit a second museum. On the way we pass the Overlord Museum. “Operation Overlord” was the Allied code name for the Battle of Normandy. A tank sits out front. It turns out a lot of D-day museums dot the Normandy countryside.
Arromanches-les-Bains is an absolutely charming town. In fact, Normandy is strikingly charming altogether. Rolling hills, historic stone buildings and charming French homes. This area’s code name is Gold Beach. Multiple flags wave from the windows of people’s homes: French, American, British, Canadian. We feel welcome and swell with pride. No part of France is more welcoming to Americans than Normandy.
At the museum in Arromanches-les-Bains (which is a step up from the first one in Omaha Beach, now about thirty minutes to our west), there are more exhibits. Movies in French and English with descriptions of what happened outside the window on this very beach.
We learn for the first time about the floating artificial port the Allied Forces created in order to ultimately defeat the Germans. We are surprised to learn this information about the floating port, code name “Mulberry.”
There is a model of the port with the “sea” rising and falling, showing how the dock was engineered to adjust to the motion. In addition, The Allies had been secretly manufacturing cement sea walls in England for months leading up to the operation and hiding them underwater in rivers so they couldn’t be spied by the Germans. We look up from the glass-encased model to the actual beach outside the window. The massive sea walls rest on the sand like algae-covered beached whales.
We exit the museum and wander the beach admiring the 75-year old cement sea walls. We feel grateful to our service men and women. Grateful to the leaders who worked together. Grateful to live in a free country.
Squealing children, bathing-suit-clad beachgoers, and fully dressed tourists sharing the sparsely-populated stretch of sand feel incongruous to the harrowing tale we have just been learning about in the museums and in the downloaded book.
We have barely scratched the surface, yet our time in Normandy has come to an end. We pile into our rental car, exhausted. The towns haunt us as we pass them on our way out of Normandy and back to our sightseeing vacation.