Travels along the beaches on this 76th anniversary of D-Day

Memorial above Gold Beach in Arromanches, Normandy

Our visit to Normandy’s D-Day Beaches was emotional, fascinating, overwhelming and a little complicated on bicycle. At times, I was stressed—by the magnitude of what happened there, by the size of the area, by how much there was to see, by how much I didn’t know. At other times, I was delighted by the peaceful coastline, pretty towns and fun festivals that we happened upon. Today, June 6, is the 76th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history. Let me take you to the famous beaches of then and now.

Bayeux

A last minute decision has us taking a 3-hour train trip from Mont-Saint-Michel to Bayeux. We only have eight days left on our cycling trip—not enough time to see everything we want if we ride the entire stretch.

Our first stop when we exit the train is the tourist information office. Have I mentioned what a great resource these places are? They find us a wonderful B&B and book a half-day D-Day Beach van tour for us (my online attempts had failed).

Bayeux makes a good base for visiting the D-Day Beaches and it’s also an attractive city with excellent attractions—both related and unrelated to the Invasion of Normandy.

Bayeux’s Notre Dame Cathedral

Bayeux’s Notre Dame Cathedral is striking, inside and out. It’s impossible to miss as it rises majestically above its modest, low-rise surroundings.

A tiny section of the Bayeux Tapestry

Bayeux’s most popular attraction is the Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry. The 70 m (230 foot) long tapestry is almost 1000 years old and depicts the story of William, The Duke of Normandy’s victory over the English in 1066. I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by a tapestry and end up going through the exhibit a second time.

The Bayeux War Cemetery

The Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest Commonwealth Second World War cemetery in France. The gravestones show the ages of the fallen soldiers: 18, 19, 20… It makes me very sad. Not far from the cemetery is the Museum of the Battle of Normandy. We’d need multiple visits to appreciate all the detail, but the museum does a good job giving us an overview of the invasion and I feel a tad more knowledgeable than when I walked in.

Half-day D-Day Beaches tour

Before researching for our trip, I didn’t realize that the five D-Day landing beaches stretch more than 80 km (50 miles) along the Normandy coastline. Seeing them all on bike isn’t feasible for us, so our small-group van tour is a good option.

D-Day Beaches. Credit: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/normandy-invasion

On June 6, 1944, approximately 160,000 Allied troops landed on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. This marked the start of Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, which paved the way for the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control. The D-Day casualty toll was great (over 10,000 Allied soldiers and roughly the same number for Germany). However, until the tour, I didn’t know that the battle in the weeks following the landings resulted in an estimated 500,000 casualties among Allies, Germans and civilians.

Pieces of Mulberry harbour at Gold Beach

I’m fascinated by the story of the Mulberry harbour at Gold Beach. After the Allies successfully held beaches following D-Day, prefabricated harbours were transported in sections over the English channel from the UK and assembled at Omaha Beach and Gold Beach. The Mulberry harbour at Gold Beach was used for 10 months to offload millions of tons of supplies, vehicles and soldiers until deep-water French ports were captured and repaired.

On the cliffs, looking down at Omaha Beach
Bomb crater landscape at Pointe du Hoc

We’re jostled by high winds at Pointe du Hoc. Looking down at the waves crashing on Omaha Beach it is unimaginable how American soldiers scaled the 30 m (100 foot) cliffs to capture the heavily fortified German area. The battle scars are still visible at Pointe du Hoc with its bomb craters and German defense bunkers.

Normandy American Cemetery

The most poignant stop on our tour is the Normandy American Cemetery. Walking among the sea of white marble crosses is a sobering reminder of the loss and sacrifices made here.

Back on our bikes along Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches

Our tour had been an educational and emotional whirlwind. It feels good to be back on our bikes moving at a glacial pace with time to absorb what we’ve seen and felt. From Bayeux, we ride through pretty countryside back to the coast at Arromanches.

View to Arromanches and Gold Beach

As we climb steadily out of Arromanches, I’m happy for a second look at Gold Beach and the pieces of Mulberry harbour that surround the bay.

Juno Beach

Bike route signage is poor but the direction is obvious as we hug the coast on our ride east to Juno Beach. We are reminded constantly of the battles that took place here with the many interpretative signs and commemorative monuments along the way.

We take a break at Courseulles-sur-Mer to visit the Juno Beach Centre. Juno Beach was assaulted by a largely Canadian force and the Centre commemorates the Canadian experience in the Battle of Normandy.

Path along Sword Beach
Cold beer stop at a great little spot on Ouistreham’s Sword Beach

Just beyond Juno Beach, we find a coastal path with sweeping views of the long, flat beaches that takes us to Ouistreham, on Sword Beach— our destination for the night. We stop at a number of hotels and B&Bs but they’re all full. Once again, Tourist Information comes to our rescue and sends us to Le Petite Chateau B&B. The couple who run the place are so kind and patient with our poor French. They are history buffs, and the next morning over breakfast they regale us with stories about Ouistreham during the war. We don’t get all the details but the old photos help fill in the language gaps. Our long, delicious, educational breakfast is among the most memorable of our trip.

Normandy Beach Race on Sword Beach

After our history lesson, it feels surreal to be here over a festival weekend. Today, the huge, flat Sword Beach of WWII fame is the venue for the Normandy Beach Race. The vintage car race draws a big crowd and we get swept up in the excitement.

We’d love to linger in Ouistreham but it’s time to get back on the bikes. Just outside town, we cross the historic Pegasus Bridge. This site is referred to as “where it all began” on D-Day. In the wee hours of June 6, 1944, before the amphibious landings, a British glider troop captured the bridge that provided the only exist eastward for British troops landing on Sword Beach.

On the other side of the bridge, we are bizarrely transported from war history to medieval revelry. The residents of Merville-Franceville-Plage have gone all out for the annual Dragons and Cider Festival. We are blown away by how many people are in truly elaborate costumes.

Along the beachside promenade in Cabourg

We’re just beyond the D-Day beaches and stop for a refreshment in the pretty resort town of Cabourg. The promenade and beach are filled with people enjoying the gorgeous late summer weather. I’m happy to be sipping wine in such a lovely spot but I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by the diverse and emotional experiences we’ve had during our three days along Normandy’s D-Day beaches.

Sadly, I’ve just read in the paper that for the first time in 75 years, due to COVID-19, there will be no public gathering at the beaches today to mark the 76th anniversary of D-Day. This post goes out to all the people who fought, lived and died during the Battle of Normandy.

Next post: We continue east to gorgeous Honfleur and Étretat.

Categories: Biking, France | Tags: , , , , | 39 Comments

Post navigation

39 thoughts on “Travels along the beaches on this 76th anniversary of D-Day

  1. That is good, that they had a good life after all. Is your mother still alive?

    Like

  2. That is wonderful, that he was a great father!!! That is probably the greatest thing a person can do: treat ones own children right and in a kind and loving manner.
    I heard of other German people who were treated quite well in England. I once knew a lady whose father became such good friends with the people on whose farm he ended up working in England, that the only reason he left, was because he still had family in Germany. otherwise he would have stayed there for the rest of his life. Funny how life can turn out sometimes, isn’t it? How did your parents then end up in Canada?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My dad worked on a farm too while in Cornwall! When he returned to Germany, he got an entry job at a pharmaceutical company. He worked himself up and was given the opportunity to work at a subsidiary in Canada (having learned English as a POW helped–yes, funny how life turns out). I think he jumped at this opportunity for a fresh start and so he and my mother immigrated in 1960. They had a good life here.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, that is very unfortunate. They did that too quite a few kids back then. But did he at least get back home all right? The father of a friend was also drafted when he was just a kid, but sadly lost a leg in the war, and even though he had kids and family and lived until he was in his sixties or seventies, he still died before his time and had a hard life until then. So sad! Is your father still alive?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My father spent a few years as a prisoner of war in Cornwall England before returning to Germany. It’s actually one of the few things he talked a bit about and I think he was treated well there. Although he was physically intact, the war left him with lasting emotional scars. He died in 2013 after a long disability due to a stroke. Despite his issues, he was a great father.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. thank you for your kind words
    where was your father during the war?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this very beautiful post.
    Very nice to see the locations.
    We never went there, partly because from where we live, it’s the same time to get to the south of France, and the climate and the weather aren’t that different to where we live – and partly also because of the war.
    One of our uncles was there on D-Day and he was so traumatized over the event that he never talked about it. He was however decorated, so one could look it up and see what exactly happened, but it was always said in the family that he saved the lives of many because he got them back. He himself only said, he kept the engines running.
    Sadly he’s no longer with us. He was perhaps the nicest uncle of all of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for your comments and sharing your personal story. I can’t even begin to imagine the physical and emotional impacts left on those (like your uncle) who fought on the D-Day beaches and in the war in general. As I mentioned in another comment, my dad was in the war (though did not see action at D-Day). Like your uncle, he never talked about his war experience, and my sister and I could sense that it was a taboo subject. Although I didn’t mention it in my post, I think this “baggage” and my German heritage weighed heavily on me while I was visiting the Normandy beaches (and while writing the post). I’m glad I visited though. You are lucky to be living close to so many interesting and beautiful places.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Uncool Cycling Club

    I can imagine that would have been quite an emotional journey. As you say, getting back on your bike is a good way to soothe the mind as well as the body 😎

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it amazing how slow travel on bike or foot is so beneficial for mind and body. I do some of my best thinking (and relaxing) that way.

      Like

  7. Wooowwowwow. What I would give to bike this route! I drove it back in January, and it was one of my favorite experiences this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing isn’t it! I would love to return and spend more time there. Hope you get there on bike at some point. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  8. Wow it made me wanting to visit Bayeux one day 😍 Thanks for sharing such interesting place 🤩

    Liked by 1 person

  9. HI Caroline, You sure are clocking up the bike miles in Europe. I learnt a lot more about D-day from reading this thank you. Also visiting Bayeux sound really interesting. Great article as usual. The breakfast you mentioned at Ouistreham sounds very special and memorable. Louise

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Louise! I must admit, I wasn’t very knowledgable about D-Day and the Battle of Normandy before visiting and I sure learned a lot there (but tons that I still don’t know). War history buffs can go crazy there with all the museums and historic sites. For me, an overview and simply “being there” was overwhelming enough. Ya, that breakfast with the wonderful couple who run the place was special. Cheers, Caroline

      Like

  10. What a wonderful and a moving article..!!

    The invasion of Normandy was perhaps among the major turning points of World War II. Salute to all the brave people who fought this war under difficult conditions.
    76 year later, people are faced with another enemy which doesn’t practice tyranny, oppression or persecution, but annihilation. This war will end soon and the virus will join its dead relatives like smallpox and polio.

    Coming to the Cathedral of Bayeux. The tapestry you showed triggered me: What is an old English-esque painting doing in this part of the World. My mind raced towards the Battle of Agincourt involving King Henry V, but the message didn’t appear that old. My mind was blown later upon research and your revelation as well: It was built during the reign of none other than King William I or William the Conqueror, perhaps the First of the long list of English monarchs who descended from him and continue even today. I can very well imagine the surreal feeling of being so strikingly close to History which I would get when I visit this place.. 😊😊

    Thank you so much Madam for sharing yet another gem of an article.. 😊😊
    Apologies once again for being late to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comments! With your knowledge and interest in history, you would love the Bayeux Tapestry. I think knowing a little bit about the story of William the Conqueror before visiting the tapestry is an asset and makes you appreciate the tapestry even more. I knew very little and ended up going through the exhibit twice so I could understand the story better. Remarkable piece of history and amazing that it has been captured with such detail and beauty on the tapestry.
      No need to apologize. I can’t even begin to catch up with all the blog posts I want to read (yours included).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much Madam for your reply.. 😊😊
        Hope you are all safe and healthy.. 😊😊

        Yes, you are right. A basic knowledge of the Historical background of the place makes us more appreciative of the same. Indeed I am quite intrigued by the life of William the Conqueror. Got to learn more thanks to your expertise. Shall try and plug the remaining knowledge gaps directly in Bayeux Monastery.. 😊😊

        It would be an honour to have your expert reviews as always.. 😊😊 Thank you so much Madam once again.. 😊😊

        Like

  11. Thank you so much for this timely post, Caroline. It’s sad to think that there’s a certain complacency in countries that have not experienced war and/or dictatorship in recent decades… where a lot of people just don’t realize that freedom is not free. And that they have their freedoms precisely because of the sacrifices made by previous generations.

    My dad has an encyclopedic coffee-table book about World War II and the accounts of D-Day I read about growing up left such an impression on me. In our teens, my siblings and I bought a fantastic computer game called “Medal of Honor” in which you play an Allied elite soldier tasked with all sorts of challenging missions. One mission about halfway through the game was to land at Omaha Beach and overpower the German defenses. Just surviving that level and getting off the beach was almost impossible – it really reminded us about the life-and-death situations all those brave soldiers faced. And so many of them did not live another day.

    On a brighter note, I was wondering why the name “Bayeux” sounded so familiar… and then I scrolled down and saw the photo of its famous tapestry. It is truly mind-boggling that it is actually 70 meters long and is still so well-preserved even after nearly 1,000 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi James, it’s nice to “see” you. I’ve been fortunate to live in a place and in a time that has not seen conflict. My life has been so different from my parents and many of my relatives in Europe who lived and fought during the two world wars. It was a very moving experience visiting Normandy’s D-Day Beaches.

      It is somehow reassuring for me to hear about your video gaming. My son is big video game fan and I’m constantly telling him to get off the blasted thing. He tells me that besides just being fun, he has learned a lot about wars and geography and history by playing these games. I never really believe him, but maybe I should. Games like the one you and your siblings played would certainly give you an appreciation and curiosity about the real conflicts. It’s great too that your dad had the big coffee table book that fed your curiosity. At my house growing up, the war was very much a taboo subject. My dad was only 17 when he was conscripted to fight for Nazi Germany at the tail end of the war. I feel sad that we never talked about his experience.

      The Bayeux Tapestry, a brighter note indeed! It is amazing! You need to see it. They’ve done a great job with their audio tour that describes the story as you walk along the tapestry display.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I always feel sad when I am reminded of D Day. It is almost impossible for me to imagine how tough it was. Not just climbing those 30m cliffs but also the challenge of a rough and very challenging coastline. They sure were tough. Your photos are lovely Caroline. Lyn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lyn. I can’t imagine it either. So often while there, I thought about how young most of those soldiers were, just kids really. It was a really intense experience but I’m glad that we visited.

      Like

  13. Until I saw your article, I had forgotten that today is the anniversary of D -Day. The brutality and horror of that invasion is beyond belief. Thanks for writing a very informative article.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The joy and happiness you witnessed on those beaches should be a reminder for all of us that the peaceful lives many of us are living today were something people who lived before us fought for. Sometimes we take these things for granted, and then we learn from the news how somewhere on this planet such ‘mundane’ things can suddenly disappear due to wars and conflicts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Bama for this eloquent comment. It is so easy to take these “normal” things for granted when one (like me) has always had them freely available. In a very small way, over the last months, with restrictions and isolation, I have experienced the disappearance of normal things like going to a restaurant, but this is so trivial compared to what people in war torn Europe and other countries have faced and continue to struggle with.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you for reminding us there are other things to think about 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  16. jawatson852

    Caroline,
    I particularly enjoyed this post, as today is my 76th birthday.
    John
    (Mike’s partner for Duplicate Bridge at the WV Seniors’ Centre)

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  17. It seemed strange to me that on the D-Day beaches there would be festivals, car races and beer! But that’s what they fought for, well not exactly, but for the freedom to live. I always imagine a desolate beach stuck in the 1940s. I guess all I knew was from movies or war memorials and ceremonies. It was nice to discover it through your perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was stuck with those war images too so it was totally weird to see some of the beaches in a completely different way. For folks living there now I suppose that festivals, car races and beach bars are “normal”. For me, as a first time visitor, even in the midst of these happy activities, images of the wartime beaches kept popping up in my head. It was an intense experience, probably heightened by unease around my German heritage.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Your biking adventures are so inspiring, Caroline! Although I haven’t been on a long distance bike trip, I love exploring Sligo on two wheels. Life on the bike is very simple, it’s healthy, the speed is not too fas and not to slow and it provides plenty of storytelling opportunities. Thanks so much for sharing yet another fantastic post and have a good day 😀 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Aiva. We just love our European biking excursions and can’t wait to go back again to explore another region on two wheels. I guess I don’t need to convince you about the merits of traveling this way—you’ve hit on many of the great reasons to bike. Enjoy your local biking (I’m doing lots of that now too).
      Have a great day!

      Liked by 2 people

  19. Pingback: Cycling France’s Brittany and Normandy coasts: Top 10 highlights | Writes of Passage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: