Sunday, September 28, 2008

In the spirit of things these days...

ORIGINAL POST: 29 May 2008

Not often you go to a place that overwhelms you - if you stay inside the States, that is.

Jerusalem was overwhelming. It was unimaginably cool. Many have asked me now, "What was your favorite place in the 4 months abroad?" I'll say Israel... or more specifically: Jerusalem.

But they rarely ask me, "What was #2?"

I would say... this was it.

...the Normandy coast.

It is a sobering thought, if you put things in perspective: the image above, for instance. Click on it. Enlarge it as big as it'll go. Then think about what it would have been like as a young man of around 19 or 20 or 21 - about my age - coming up over this cliff (directly behind me in this photograph)... and seeing this and the machine guns on either side.

My day had begun in the hostel I mentioned from my previous Paris blog.

This is Bayeux... just about 3 miles from the beaches of the province of Normandy in northern France. The cathedral that dominates the skyline of this sleepy town is known as Notre-Dame. Yep, there is more than one... or two... or three. In fact, there are bunches of them scattered throughout France and other French-language influence places. Yes, even the ones scattered throughout the States... and EVEN as far as Vietnam! Lots of Notre-Dame's.

The previous night, I met some fellow traveling students at the hostel. Their names were Kate, Stephan, and Rich. Kate and Stephan were from Germany - Köln and Berlin, respectively, and Rich was from England. Restless from a hard week of studying in their school in Paris, they wanted to go do something... so they only thing there really was to do was going off to the dark beaches.

So we did. We piled into their little sub-compact Peugeot and headed off to the beaches. It took a while, but we found a place just east of Omaha Beach where you could drive a car all the way to the shore. Needless to say it was pitch black, but it was sort of a cool experience. You could see, in the light from the dim headlights, the outline of a small bunker on the side of the cliff.

By that time, it was getting mighty late for a Sunday night and literally everything was closed... except a single diner down a one-way street in the middle of town. Using their amazing multi-lingual skills (they all spoke English, French, and German - and Kate spoke Italian) we had a little meal and headed back to the hostel. I wish I would have gotten contact information on them, but I left too early the next morning for ANYONE to be awake.

I left the hostel at 5:30am. I had quite a morning ahead of me and a long way to go.

But, it isn't far to the beaches. In fact, you can't miss the spires above the horizon.

Through the narrow passages and alleys between these sleepy little towns, not even the schoolchildren were up and going yet.

Back in the States, its a rare day that I would see two times per day when the shadows were long... but in Europe, I was growing very accustomed to it.


From the moment I saw the first bunker there on the side of the road, I was overwhelmed.

I've been to quite a few battlefields in my day. I live in the Southeastern United States - so we have plenty of American Revolution and Civil War battlefields scattered about. And sure, they have their cannons and little trenches and little grassy-covered forts... but there is something altogether different about seeing real World War 2 - and knowing people (or having family) that fought here?

See, that's completely different. What you see in the water there is pieces of the Mulberry Harbor - a massive retaining wall of immense concrete blocks designed to block the waves as the large transport ships could come in and offload their supplies and equipment and personnel in the days following D-Day.

I had ended up here, just west of the Arromanches-les-Bains between Gold and Omaha Beaches where British and Canadian Forces had scaled these 100ft tall cliffs with grappling hooks and ropes to eliminate the gun emplacements here that were shooting down the beaches toward Omaha Beach.

The defending soldiers would wait for the grappling hooks to come up over the side and wait until a few soldiers were climbing... then they would either release the grappling hook or cut the rope.

Now, it looks rather peaceful... to be called "les Chaos" where some of the most prolific fighting took place.

Some of the bunkers were destroyed by the early-morning bombardment on June 6, 1944. But not that many...

Many a young man died here - on both sides. The damage is still apparent.

The batteries were left intact.

As are the machine gun nests:

The view from the cliff's edge is like this. Yes, it was THAT close. And just imagine fighting your way to the top of this cliff... not getting dropped by the soldiers up top... and meeting this thing face to face... realizing all those bombardments earlier were almost ineffective: the shells just made pockmarks on the surface.

The fighting just has begun.

Then, if you made it past this sight, you then have to fight your way through the maze inside this bunker. On the backside is a lower entrance and a higher entrance up a ladder. If you chose the lower entrance, you're met by a machine gunner shooting at you through this armored hole:

A grenade doesn't really help much past making a loud noise, but you just dive into this pitch dark maze through to the end where there is a nest of soldiers waiting for you.

Well, somebody did it. Someone made it all the way through and survived the onslaught. How do I know? Because the bullet holes in the wall here are from an attacker... probably passed through the body of the defender:

And they could have only been shot from the doorway.

See? Puts into perspective things we either take for granted or don't think about how impossibly hard this was.

A couple towns over, though, is the resting place for 9,387 young soldiers who did not survive to tell the tale.

The walls to the right and left of this monument list their names...

...but walking up the steps there and seeing them for yourself is an experience all to itself.

And to the north... just a few meters from this shot...

...Omaha Beach itself.

(And just a note for my photo buddies, the dark corners and vignetting is all done with the lens. I figured out which apertures combined with zoom on the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 does it.)


In all of Europe, this was one of my "I must go there" places. Also, I was mightily impressed by the area's policy of "absolutely no commercial activity". I couldn't even find a lapel pin for my grandfather... as strange as that is - finding a place in Europe with very very little tourist activity - I'm happy things are that way.

This place demands respect...

...definitely my respects to these soldiers here...

...for they really were part of the "Greatest Generation."

But my time was growing short and I had to be in Brussels, Belgium, before 19:00... I had to move along.

But here's another little story:
On the way to the American Cemetery, I passed this church and randomly photographed it because it looked familiar.

Then again, I've seen a billion churches in the past few months. This one was unique, though, because I recognized it from somewhere a bit more subtle.

It was this famous photograph... reconstructed...

...I had seen that photograph in books and things when I was studying a lot about World War II a few years ago.

How bizarre is it to stand in a place like this. Just a single photograph.

Alas, my time in France was drawing to a close. I took the train back to Paris' St. Lazare station and then took a taxi to the Gare du Nord.

Yep... yet another Bourne Identity movie location.


I made it to Brussels in less than 1.5 hours on the super hi-speed Thalys train. It was mighty cool to see the world go by at 350km/h.

From the sleepy town of Bayeux, France, to the hi-speed French trains and then speeding through Brussels in time for a 19:00hr flight, my life as a traveler never can really slow down...

...but to take a little time and remember those who have fought for my freedom to do so... it was one of my most memorable locations. So, in the spirit of Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944) coming up... thank a soldier.

I do need to return there someday and spend some more time exploring the rest of the beaches. This was just a short morning.

I need about a week.

Stay with me. My trip is winding down quickly. There are only a few more posts before I returned to the States.

Sad... I know.

~Noah D.

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