Sunday, June 5, 2016

Normandy Then and Now

Our bus and two of our boys stand behind a Canadian flag painted in the parking lot at Bény-sur-Mer.
Our final trip as a school took place in early May. As we always do, we headed to northern France to honour those who fought in WWII, on the beaches of Normandy. This pilgrimage was a companion piece to the one we took in November to WWI sites. The contribution of Canadians to the two great wars was the highlight.
We arrive at the Mémorial de Caen
Since I was on this trip last year, I will not dwell much on the itinerary. Below is my blog post from last May to point out many of our activities.

Rachel and Sam stand in front of the list of the D-Day beaches
Our first day was devoted mainly to travel; the only site we were able to visit, and only for a short time, was the Mémorial de Caen, a museum which provided an excellent introduction to D-Day.

Our guide leads us to Pointe-du-Hoc
The very full plan for the next day was to travel from west to east along the coast. We began at Point-du-Hoc, stopped at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-mer, lunched in Arromanches, enjoyed an extensive tour at the Juno Centre, walked a portion of Juno Beach and finally, stopped for a half an hour at the Canadian Cemetery at Bény-sur-mer. Our multilingual guides accompanied us along our route, instructing us on this vital part of Norman history.
Diagram of allied troop movement in Normandy.
Bob took this shot into a bunker when I looked out at him from behind bed springs.
One big difference from a year ago was the weather, which was ideal: sunny and warm. No doubt, it was cooler on June 6, 1944, in the early hours of the morning when the allied troops landed at these same locations.
Adam and I enjoy the sunshine (and lunch) at Arromanches.
Sam, Carmela, Raphaél and Aaron at Arromanches
The warm weather took the edge off our walk on Juno beach. Last year, we were alone there, but this time, several families had gathered for an afternoon outing. Many of us chose to do the trek barefoot– it was such a beautiful day!
The walk on the beach.
The grave of Francis McDonald.
When we arrived at our last stop, Bény-sur-Mer, I headed first to the cemetery's record book to determine where Francis McDonald was buried. He was the uncle of my good friend from high school days, Nancee. Her father, James, had served in Normandy too. How difficult it must have been for him to bury his brother there. Nancee's eldest brother is named after this uncle.

The charming old town of Bayeux
The following day, we headed to Bayeux and to Mont St.-Michel in reverse order from last year. Again, we were blessed with gorgeous weather. While I wanted to see the Bayeux tapestry again, I was also eager to visit the cathedral that dominates the skyline, so I left the museum as soon as I could and headed into the old town. Time was limited, but I made the most of it.
Bayeux Cathedral
The gothic church is very grand, and the old town seems to be untouched by the war. I would have liked to have spent more time in this place.
Inside the cathedral
Our next stop, Mont St.-Michel, was quite a sight on a clear day. We were able to spot it from a greater distance than last year (when we visited on an overcast day).
We spot Mont St.-Michel through farmland
This year, Bob decided to take a different perspective while inside the walls. When he entered the fortress, he ascended to the second level for a greater angle towards the streets and the marsh below while still looking up towards the monastery.
The view from the ramparts

The view over the marsh
The abbey church above
Mont St.-Michel is the second most visited site in France, and no wonder. It is truly a marvel of medieval architecture. When erecting a church on the top of a rock, the engineers of the 11th century had to be quite innovative in their construction. Our guide did a great job at illustrating how this was done.

Our guide explains the construction of the abbey on the mountain.
We also learned that the abbey still houses monks and nuns and that many pilgrims still visit the site annually. Many do so by walking on the marshy land at low tide, but that can be dangerous, if the waters start to rise.
Walking on the marsh at low tide
Adieu Mont St. Michel
Upon our return to Caen that day, and every day, after dinner, we explored this lovely town at night. Caen was the home of William the Conqueror, who is buried there. Its importance can be seen in the many historic buildings in the city, including a castle which dominates the old town. There are two abbey churches, too, l'Abbey aux Hommes and l'Abbey aux Femmes. We only had time to see their exteriors.
My colleagues and I in front of the Abbey aux Femmes church.
The restored church of St. Pierre
Unlike nearby Bayeux, Caen was heavily damaged during the war.  Some buildings, such as the church of St. Pierre, have been restored, but others stand as shells of their former glory.
L'abbey aux Hommes

The shell of St. Etienne le Vieux church
Caen also has some fine restaurants. Le P'tit B is a favourite with the NJC staff. Both last year and this one, we enjoyed delectable French cuisine there at good prices.
My entrée at Le P'tit B
The last two days opened up new ground on this annual excursion. Concern over the Paris attacks last fall and the state of emergency in France led the organizers of the trip to avoid any time in the French capital this time around. Instead, we spent an extra night in Caen, and headed to the beautiful coastal town of Honfleur for an afternoon.
Honfleur harbour

Another angle on the harbour
On route, we stopped at yet another memorial to events in WWII, the Pegasus bridge. This site was the first objective taken by British airborne forces on D-Day, to ensure the army could move inland. The original bridge is no longer in operation, but stands beside a museum documenting this little known part of D-Day.
The original Pegasus bridge sits among WWII equipment.
The bridge is up.
While we were there, the current bascule bridge was raised up to allow boats access across the Caen canal. That was a great sight to see.
The charming restaurant where we had a leisurely lunch

Patti, Carmela, Bill and I at lunch
In Honfleur, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch (moules et frites for me!) before taking time to explore the town. One of the most interesting structures there was St. Catherine Church, a half-timber building in the shape of a double-hull. I have never seen a church like it before. It also has a separate bell-tower.
Inside the church

The church exterior
Honfleur is well named as it is full of flowers. "Fleur" means flower in French. In early May, they were in full bloom, adding a great deal to the beauty of this town. I really enjoyed my time there.
Spring flowers

The Horseshoe staircase at Fontainebleau
On the final day of our excursion to France, we travelled by bus to Fontainebleau, a large estate south of Paris. Originally built as a hunting lodge, it has been enjoyed by 34 French kings, and later, by Napoleon and his descendents. Like Versailles, it is testament to the ridiculous amount of wealth that the French nobility possessed, and the sumptuous lifestyle that the aristocrats led. No wonder there was a French revolution.
The Francis I Gallery

In front of an elaborate fireplace in the Room of the Guards
Fontainebleau has portions which originate from medieval times, with additions up to the second empire during the time of Napoleon III. Therefore, it is a mishmash of architectural styles.

The Ballroom
Ceiling in the St. Saturnin Chapel
There are three chapels and five galleries and many many apartments in this massive building. One wing now houses a museum to the Napoleon dynasty. It was here where Napoleon abdicated in 1814, when the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed.

The Gallery of Diana

The Chapel of the Trinity
By late afternoon, we were back in Paris at the Gare de Lyon, where we would board the train to return to Neuchâtel. Four hours later, we were home.
Our group at Fontainebleau
As this was the last school trip that I would take part in, I would like to dedicate this blog to my colleagues who have worked and travelled with me for two years at our unique school. We work together when we are on excursion, supporting each other when necessary. School trips are often a great responsibility, as we have the wellbeing of a large group of adolescents in mind at all times. With these folks by my side, the trips have been a pleasure.
Louise, Patti and Carmela at the Juno Centre

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