Posted by: Marco | May 21, 2011

Our invasion of Normandy

A week ago, we left our temporary home in Pontlevoy, in the Loire valley and headed north into Normandy. A minor traffic jam near the world-famous racetrack at Le Mans was all that slowed us down. The drive took us through gorgeous farm country and quaint little towns…just as we’ve come to expect. We drove around Caen and almost to the coast, to the sleepyl village of St. Aubin d’Arquenay. We settled into a lovely house on an apple orchard (there are pear and cherry trees, too!) belonging to M. and Mme Vaudron.

Reading tombstones at the Canadian cemetery

We spent Sunday getting oriented and then on Monday morning, we jumped into the car and headed for Paris to pick up Shannon’s parents who had spent the last week discovering Amsterdam and Paris. We narrowly survived driving around the Arc de Triomphe and, miraculously, found their hotel with only one accidental wrong turn. We are all pretty excited to see each other after 9 months of separation.

We drove back to our village which is located a few kilometers south of Ouistreham, the town at the mouth of the Orne river and the eastern most point of the Invasion Beaches of Normandy and began our assault on the sites of this historically significant area. Although the area today is peaceful, tranquil, bucolic, pastoral…it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, war shaped this area. In 911, Viking Norseman invaded this region and then founded Normandy, giving it its name. A couple of hundred years later, in 1066, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, crossed the English Channel, conquered England, and changed his name. In 1431, during The Hundred Year’s War, Joan of Arc was infamously burned at the stake in Normandy. And then, in 1944, it was the site of the greatest sea-borne invasion in history and the battle that changed the course of history. So, between the war memorials, the William the Conqueror memorials, and the beautiful countryside, we have a an embarrassment of things to do and see.

First among them was the visit to Juno Beach, the strip of Normandy coast assigned to Canadian soldiers in June 1944, and the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer. The museum, partly financed through private donations, is run by Canadian students. It was nice to hear Canadian accents in French and English again. The beaches are over-developed beach towns now, so not much remains to remind visitors of what it must have been like. And that’s ok. Those soldiers died not to create memorials but to allow people to live in freedom. We also visited Sword beach (British) and Omaha beach (American), as well as the Canadian cemeteries, the US cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and the German cemetery in La Cambe. Although dramatically different, these graveyards allow the magnitude of the battle to sink in. The Canadian cemeteries are the smallest with “only” 2000 or so graves each. The German one is the largest with over 21,000 dead. The US cemetery, spread majestically over 70 hectares, is the grandest.

21,000 German dead

The German cemetery was understandably subdued, nothing is written other than the names of the young men who fell defending the indefensible. The American approach was understandably patriotic. These brave young volunteers fought and died to rid Europe of Nazism.   The Americans chose to engrave the name, rank, serial number, unit name and day of death on each cross. There is nothing else. The Canadian approach, as with the rest of the Commonwealth, is more personal. Canadians engraved the essential: name, rank and serial number, but also their age and sometimes the unit badge. More touching, each family was given the option to add a personal message, and many did. Strolling through the graveyard, you read soldiers’ nicknames or who their mum and dad were. Somehow, this more personal approach to memorializing these fallen heroes made it all the more poignant.

After sobering visits to war sites, we headed for Bayeux to visit the  “Bayeux Tapestry”. You might wonder why we would pay good money to visit a chunk of wallpaper. Well, let me tell you, this is no ordinary wall covering. This 70 metre long tapestry retells the story of a different invasion: the invasion of England by the Normans led by William the Bastard. In early comic book style, the hand-embroidered tapestry recounts, with considerable humour and detail, the full account of the Duke of Normandy’s trip across the Channel and his victory over the Saxons and the Danes at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was surprisingly entertaining and well worth the trip.

American soldiers lying on foreign soil

After our long days of sightseeing and driving the tiny country roads, the kids burn off any excess energy in the pool and all of us spend our evenings playing cards with Nana and Papa. It’s great to share this experience with family. Our invasion of Normandy will continue for another week and, then we too will cross the English Channel to conquer England.

Carpe annum,



  1. Good post. I don’t think I would tackle the Arc de Triomphe with any confidence. Last year I visited Etaples cemetery in Picardy, it is supposed to be the biggest in France and it was a very thought provoking experience.

    • Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for the comment. Those war graves cemeteries are a sobering place to be, aren’t they. It really gives you pause. As a former member of the Canadian Air Force, I am very impressed and pleased to see the care that these cemeteries receive. I wish all school children in Canada could come here to witness these sites (and sights).
      BTW, great travel blog. You get around!

  2. Had a similar experience in Ipre, Belgium. The Canadian war cemetery was overwhelmingly full of Canada’s sons. I have a photo of Vanessa, who was 2.5 yrs at the time, looking thoughtfully, sadly at a grave stone while sucking her fingers. It’s quite a meaningful photo, considering her Belge-Canuck roots.

    Looks like you guys are having a fun-filled and highly educational trip. It’s great the way you are blogging the entire experience and sharing with the rest of us! Enjoy!!

    Sonia xox

  3. You may not realize that we had a bowl and pitcher set that is completely decorated with scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. We still have the bowl and I think Denise has the pitcher. We have never seen the war cemeteries or the WWI monuments like Vimy. Too bad, maybe someday.

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