COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, NORMANDY, FRANCE — Standing here on a high cliff, some hundreds of meters above a white North Atlantic beach, it’s hard to imagine anything but tranquility. Hard to imagine the horror of war. Hard to imagine the sacrifice.
Hard, but not impossible.
Normandy is obviously a special place for visiting Americans on the trail of history. But it’s also a special place — full stop. Normandy holds a uniquely surreal kind of beauty. How could such a tranquil, sleepy place have been puncture point for one of the mankind’s deepest wounds?
We spent a long day touring the many sites of this northwestern state, some 150 km north of our HQ in Brittany — mainly jumping between the famous D-Day beaches clustered around the town of Bayeux.
Bayeux itself is a pretty little village with a remarkably intact Gothic cathedral at its center and a number of restaurants, shops and museums catering mainly to the flood of American, Canadian and British tourists that come here to reflect on history. It’s somewhat humbling to be in a place that after over 70 years, still regards the Allies as their liberators. In a country known to be at best wary and at worst straight out rude to foreigners, the people of western Normandy couldn’t be more friendly — and thankful.
From Bayeux, we drove north to the coast proper. It’s amazing how little civilization there is here on such beautiful land. The quietness clearly adds to the reflective quality of a place where the first of nearly half a million people lost their lives in order to bring freedom back to Europe.
The first beach we visited was code name Gold, site of the main British force landing near the town of Arromanches. Here you can tour the remaining concrete pillboxes and heavy artillery set up by the Germans on the windswept plains above the beach. It’s a bit chilling to sit in these massive bunkers and look out miles over the ocean and think of the death and destruction that rained down on our grandfathers from here.
From Gold beach, we headed west to the most infamous of all the landing beaches, Omaha. By all accounts this was the bloodiest beachhead and the site of the main American landing forces. Today the beach is utterly quiet and beautiful, with rolling dunes leading to a soft sand beach that is almost a kilometer wide.
As we walked out to the surf, we stepped over a few remaining relics of the landing, including a rusting old hull of a landing vehicle. Clear reminders of the destruction of man which nature has tried to erase nearly three-quarters of a decade.
On the green hills above the beach sits the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, 172 acres of manicured lawns and respectful white marble gravestones that represent nearly 10,000 soldiers that lost their lives during the war in Europe.
We arrived in the late afternoon and spent what seemed like hours walking along the columns of names and dates, silently reflecting on the lives lost and wondering about the lives that are memorialized on these emblematic headstones.
Driving through the dark lavender fields, again lost in the tranquility and beauty of Normandy, it was almost as if the land itself understood the importance of quiet reflection. Visiting this holy ground was almost a birthright and responsibility as an American, but delivered more emotion and gravity than I even expected.