Travel StoriesNormandy, France 2011 - By Ren Withnell
Normandy, France 2011 - A Bit of D-Day and Normandy Coast
One of the things I want to do on this trip is revisit the Normandy D-Day beaches. I was but a boy of 9 when I last saw them. My dad tried his best to enlighten me as to the sacrifices men made on these beaches so that I could be free, but I was much more interested in the cool tanks and guns and bunkers and pretending I was Action Man. Age has given me a strong interest in history, I have also learnt what it means to be badly injured and to lose loved ones. I want to view the beaches through the eyes of a maturing man. However this is supposed to be a holiday too, not a test of endurance. To do a proper tour of all the sites and museums would mean a 200 mile round trip and a hard hard day.
Looking at the map it made more sense to head west from Honfleur and touch on the eastern beaches where the British and Canadians landed. These beaches are not the bloody beaches where the Americans landed, where such horrors portrayed in many a film are located. These beaches are still just as important and the men that died there made just as much sacrifice as any American hero. Today the rain from last night has abated and the sun is out again. The wind is still up though. This pleases me as it means the sun won't be scorching, but the gf would still prefer a warm calm day.
Between us we create some more Brioche sandwiches, fill a couple of pop bottles with water and load the bike. Oh great, French roads again. Drive on the right, drive on the right, ride on the wrong side...I repeat the mantra to myself again and again as we head out. I'm kind of looking forward to today, but I'm kind of pensive too. It's hard enough navigating a strange place, looking for landmarks and places to stop back home, but when all the roads, signs, junctions and speed limits are all alien then it will be really hard work. At least this time I manage to navigate through and out of Honfleur successfully.
Riding in France is different. Not only are the cars on the wrong side but the method of driving is different too. At the edge of each town there's a sign with the name of the town on it, with a red border. This means you're in a 50kph zone, that's about 30mph. That's fine, just like home but without the "30" sign. But in the centre of each tiny village and hamlet we pass through along the coast the speed limit drops to 30kph, that's about 18 mph! The bike doesn't like this. Trying to keep a steady 18mph the engine bounces on and off the chain. It's not bad, not mechanically damaging, but I just don't like the feeling I get from the transmission. At 30mph there's enough workload on the engine to keep the chain under drive, at 20 its bounces in and out of tension.
We pass through small clumps of houses running along the coast. We can't see the sea except for the odd peek between trees and buildings. Soon we see signs for Trouville then as we crest one small hill we see below us a large coastal town. It's not as pretty as Honfleur. The houses are much more modern, there are blocks upon blocks of 1980's Miami Vice style apartments overlooking the coast and as we approach the town centre and the inevitable 30kph zone, we see large billboards advertising a Casino. The gf says "You can't like any place that has a casino", I think she's right. Trouville and Deauville are actually the same place. One side of the river is Trouville, the other Deauville. Other than that you'd never know you'd left one place and entered another. Not that I'd bother coming back again. It is (they are) a bland place devoid of character, visible history and beauty. Big broad dual carriageways carry cars at 20mph through large white buildings interspersed with the odd marina and wasteland areas surrounded by wire fencing.
This is what we saw when we stopped. Not pretty. It's not all like this, but it's not inspiring either.
I stop down some random side road to ask if the gf would like to look around. She doesn't even get off the back of the bike so I get my camera out of the tank bag, take a few snaps and put it back in. The gf informs me that her guide book makes Deauville sound like Monte Carlo, rich, stylish, full of millionaires and the beautiful people. There should be artists and flash cars and ladies in high heels walking poodles. We see a very plain town full of very plain things and plain people. Between the plain things we see either building sites or Casino billboards. We ride past a line of campervans parked by some wasteland and a large bland hotel and head west.
A marina at Deauville. It's fine I'm sure, but there's no rich and famous here, no luxury, no "X" factor.
Heading west I soon spot signs for Pegasus Bridge. I can't recall the details but I know this was a place was important during D-Day. These signs take us to a modern building in a clean fresh looking car park with Pegasus Bridge just visible through the trees. This small area has a distinctly "Not French" feeling to it. I can't tell why, but something feels different, a bit more like home. It's only when we walk into the museum I realise why. Pegasus Bridge is so called due to the insignia of the British Airbourne Division who fought at the bridge on D-Day. Either the museum is run by the British or the French have made the place feel British.
There's a lot of UK bikes outside the museum at Pegasus Bridge, perhaps that's why it feels so British.
Following more of the "Operation Overlord" signs takes us to "The Grand Bunker". This was once a large German bunker but is now a museum set in the middle of a housing estate with a confusing one way system One way is bad enough, but with all the traffic on the wrong side of the road I'm completely bewildered. I finally throw the bike into some parking space outside a house near the bunker. Desperate for the toilet the first thing we do is dash into the museum foyer and ask "Ou-est la toilette!". Luckily there's one in the foyer and we take turns to relieve ourselves. On a large TV screen they are showing the classic film "The Longest Day". I feel a little uneasy with this, it's a good film but it is a film, not a documentary and it is taken purely from the victor's point of view. In this German bunker I image many young German men died too. In a moment of international peace I find joy in seeing a Japanese tourist family, mum's pulling the youngest kid off a display while dad's looking at the map and explaining something to the older child. Imagine that happening 66 years ago.
The Grand Bunker. You could be forgiven if you think it's a large concrete block. Those Germans sure knew how to make them solid.
Outside there's a handful of war machinery. A couple of small tanks, a half-track personnel transporter, a couple of artillery guns and a landing craft. According to the information board this landing craft was used in the making of Saving Private Ryan, a moving and sometimes quite gruesome film. I stand in the landing craft and I try to imagine how I would feel as I rolled in towards the shoreline. I imagine the front of the craft opening and as it does the first row of men fall. I try to imagine wading ashore will bullets flying around. That's easy, what becomes unimaginable is what happens when I am hit. I cannot imagine that. I cannot know how it feels to lie on a beech bleeding to death. I cannot image how it feels to drown. I cannot image how it feels to be caught in a shell blast. I feel a little dizzy and quite emotional so I shake myself and walk out of the boat. I can do that here on a peaceful day, the soldiers could not.
The D-Day landing craft. I wonder how many of the men that stood in this particular boat lived to see the day out.
Following the coast as best as I can on these quirky roads my limited geography tells me we're probably around the area of the D-Day beaches. You wouldn't really know to be honest, in my head I thought there would be bunkers and guns, rusting tanks by the shoreline and landing craft bobbing up and down on the water's edge. Of course that was 67 years ago. Now the coastline west of Ouistreham is built up with houses and hotels. I pull the bike into a side road again to get my bearings. There's a part of me that is sad not to see more of the war machine and initially there's a feeling that it's all been forgotten. With a little reflection though, it's good that things have moved on. Life ought to move on after any bad event and it's not like the war has been forgotten, there are museums, graveyards and memorials all around. I'm sure the soldiers on D-Day would rather have been kite boarding in a free country like the bloke whizzing across the water today though.
Sieze the day young man, and be thankful you can in peace.
The next stop on the "Operation Overlord" signs is the Canadian Juno Beach Centre. This is a very modern very smart building with a strange collection of obelisks for want of a better description. These are polished and machined stones and each one has countless small plaques with the names of soldiers on them. I presume these are the names of the fallen. There's a small bunker nearby and a handful of war machinery. We walk toward the beach which is a broad sandy beach, as good as any you could find. There are plenty of visitors around but no-one's sunbathing or windsurfing here. Perhaps that wouldn't be appropriate. After trying to name each of the flags we admit our lack of knowledge and start to head east, back toward our studio.
The gf, on the left, is 5 foot tall. Imagine how many names are on the Obelisks, if that is what they are called.
Rather than follow the busy coastal route I try to head inland then east. Inland the land is flat arable farmland but here there's more human activity. There's more buildings and more industry and a little more traffic. I still need to repeat my mantra to myself every now and then, "ride on the right, ride on the wrong side of the road" but I'm starting to at least feel in control if not comfortable. Despite my efforts to follow a different route I end up back on the coastal route and stuck in a one-way system along the coast in one of those god forsaken 30kph zones. I'm getting a little tired and in need of a rest and a tad frustrated with these roads. Somehow, more by accident than design, I end up back in Ouistreham and I spot a car park and a café, so I park up. I'm glad to be off the bike and I'm glad I did not try to do the full D-Day tour in one day.
We sit outside the café in the area all these cafés have, the path outside where tables and chairs grab every available inch of free space. In my best French I order 2 cups of tea and 2 crepes. Crepes are pancakes, smaller than at home but very tasty, especially with sugar on them. As we drink and dine and discuss the horrors of war I notice a large chap drinking wine at an alarming rate, smoking cigars and ordering the next glass of wine abruptly in bad French. Beneath his chair an aged Golden Retriever pants heavily in the heat and I wonder if he's bothered to get the dog a drink. A stylish aged French lady talks in a business like fashion into her mobile phone and a young couple join a happy looking older Frenchman for coffee and crepes. This is what I wanted, a taste of France and French people living their lives. It feels, well, continental?
The wine drinking cigar smoking man speaks loudly and brashly to me, "Where are you from?". We reply then he regales us with his story of how he can't get his dog through customs as the stupid officious froggies said the flea and tick treatments were 2 hours out of date. We listen and sympathise and learn that he's from Newton-le-Willows which is only a few miles from where I live. It's a small world isn't it. For some reason I don't like this chap. He's loud and over confident and wishes to tell us of his world travels. We've rested and finished our drinks by now, so I stand and make to leave. As I do I ask what he does, or at least did, for a living. He's a lawyer which explains why he is the way he is. With that I leave with my sympathy for the dog intact, but not the owner.
Back on the road I get a little lost again. If I did not have "Scat Naff" (a compass mounted on the fairing) I think I'd be riding around here for the rest of my natural life. However by following my trusty compass eastbound I stumble upon Pegasus Bridge which is promising so I continue. We follow the compass and discover the hinterlands of the Normandy Beaches. More arable farmland with plenty of space and fields with just a few cattle in them. More quaint villages with old and new houses and more of those damn 30kph zones. At one point I get stuck behind a tractor towing a very large digger, very slowly, down the twistiest of lanes, my patience is being tested. Finally we spot signs for Honfleur and I calm down as I realise we're not far away now. We've not travelled far but we've been on and off this bike for what seems like an age. Moving quickly along the Normandy Beaches is impossible.
I'm aware the food supplies back at the studio are a little low and I'm in need of a quick rest and a drink. I'm also getting into this speaking French malarky too so we stop in the splendid village of Touques, inland from Trouville and Deauville. Touques is a small village with a local shop that sells more of the fantastic Brioche, more microwave rice and more ham for sandwiches. It feels nice to be sat in the sun, drinking pop and watching the French pass by. I notice a Chemist shop with an LED sign that flashes and changes in all kinds of manner. This seems to be a theme here, all the chemist shops we pass have some kind of fancy signpost. You'd certainly struggle to not find a pharmacy.
Touques, basking in the sun and looking beautiful. Notice the pharmacy sign, the green cross, currently displaying the temperature.
I navigate the final part of the ride like a seasoned local now. I can manage roundabouts without stopping to catch my breath, I can negotiate junctions but I still need to take my time. I can happily travel the roads keeping to the ever changing speed limits and for once I actually feel like I'm going to find the studio successfully. Back at the studio I park up the bike and take pleasure in removing the now sweaty bike gear and clothing. There's a part of me that's disappointed I didn't make the effort to view more of the historical beaches yet I think that would have proved too much. We settle in for another evening.
Normandy, France 2011 - Prologue
Normandy, France 2011 - The Ride South
Normandy, France 2011 - The Ferry, French Roads and Honfleur
Normandy, France 2011 - A Good Walk Around Honfleur
Ren and Sharon spend the day in and around Honfleur. It's a pretty and characterful town. The day has it's downs, and ups.
Normandy, France 2011 - A Bit of D-Day and Normandy Coast
The Normandy beaches and the busy roads of France are on the menu today. There's a little time to relax too.
Normandy, France 2011 - Another Good Walk Around Honfleur
Normandy, France 2011 - The Beauty Of Beuvron-En-Auge
Normandy, France 2011 - Back To The Ferry and England
Normandy, France 2011 - The Trip North and More Images
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Travel StoriesNormandy, France 2011 - By Ren Withnell