Leave the Jump Boots At Home!
Trip Start Apr 16, 2011
10Trip End May 03, 2011
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The purpose of this particular venture into Normandy was to visit the beach areas and surrounding areas comprising the June 1944 Allied invasion, enjoy the flavour and spectacular nature of the Norman countryside, absorb a fraction of the the history and culture from a short visit, follow the path of the Allied and German armies during the months of June-August 1944, visit some of the major cemeteries containing the casualties from this three month onslaught, retrace some of places observed on several previous visits into the region and generally absorb aspects of this picturesque part of the French nation.
Each time I've been to France I've always been struck by how large this nation state really is. Let's put this in context. My home is in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As the fourth largest province in Canada, Alberta encompasses 662,000 sq kilometres with a population of just over 3.7 million people. Not a lot of folk spread over a wide area. France, by comparison, covers 544,000 sq kilometres but has a population of over 62 million people. However, in no time, a visitor to France is swept up in a false sense of geographic distortion
France seems so expansive for many reasons. Perhaps it is due to the way in which the population is distributed, the seemly endless number of small but vibrant villages scattered about the countryside, the captivating historic features dotting a landscape that has been trodden upon by friend and foe for centuries and the sheer richness of the things to catch the imagination on a daily basis.
France is quite amazing beyond Paris. Off to the northwest,Normandy is such a jewel, not just for what has happened from time immortal to William the Conquerer to the present, but due to its uniqueness. Now, before a reader of this blog jumps all over this author, I say this knowing that other areas of France are just as unique and inspiring but in different ways
Now, if France is 'huge', Normandy feels just plain 'large'. As a geographic entity, Normandy can be broken down into four divisions: Northeastern - the Seine Maritime region of Dieppe, Rouen and Le Havre; Southern - the Orne region of Mont-St-Michel, Alencon and Argentan; Central - the Calvados region of Caen, Bayeux, Falaise and Camembert; and, Northwestern - the Manche region of Cherbourg, St-Lo, Cotentin and Carentan.
During this visit I planned to "hang about" the Manche and Calvados regions, primarily. Due to the generosity of delightful and wonderful English relatives (my cousin and her husband - they in England and me in France - call it a house loan), I would be able to utilize a quaint little abode in the countryside, west of Carentan, south of Ste-Mere-Eglise and not many kilometres off the N13. This would put me within striking distance of nearly everything that one might want to see within a comfortable day's drive.
Thus, after leaving the Paris area it was a very pleasant drive along the A13 to Rouen, to the bypass around Caen, past Bayeux and onward to Carentan
Carentan may be just a stop along the N13 from Caen to Cherbourg but it is a curious place to employ as a shopping and fueling up spot when one chooses to spend several weeks bustling about the countryside. This town of somewhat more than 6,000 folk is situated on the Cotentin Peninsula in the Manche department of Normandy.
If anyone feels the overwhelming need to scamper about the five invasion beaches along the Normandy coast from Les Dunes-de-Varreville (Utah in the west) to Ouistreham Sword in the east), a place like Carentan is a decent staging area. It is quite modern (thanks to the concerted and bloody efforts of the attacking US airborne forces and the tenacious defending Wehrmacht units during June, 1944), is more than adequately provisioned with shopping facilities from the tiny family run operations to the large supermarkets, lies on the main rail line to Paris and is possession of a lively and reasonably expansive open market on Saturday. For a largely rebuilt place it still has charm in the form of an imposing city hall and has locals who seem rather pleased to have Anglo-type tourists hanging about. During my jaunts into Carentan and during visits to several cafes whose owners let me use their WiFi for the cost of coffee purchases (thank you, mes amis), I encountered nothing but pleasant people just going about their business
The countryside leading out from Carentan the southwestern direction of the D971 and D903 highways is quite stunning. Ever present are the hedgerows or what the French call 'les bocages'. These functional, dominant and dense dividers of farmland were the bane of the invading Allied armies in June 1944 but truly natural fortresses to the German defenders. Anyway that you look at it, a hedgerow is a very practical way of enclosing both man and beast.
Even if you own and utilize a GPS, anyone planning on spending time in this part of Normandy should consider spending some coin on several maps. Such maps provide a contextual three dimensional quality that is helpful to those of us who are are visual learners. I found the following particularly useful: Michelin 513 Regional France, 1:200,000 - 1 inch = 3.16 miles; Carte Topographique Serie Bleue 1211 E Valognes St-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte 1: 25,000 1cm = 250 m; and, Michelin Tires 102 Battle of Normandy June - August 1944, scale of 3 - 15 miles to the inch.
The food in this part of Normandy is quite promising. Daily French bread (available fresh in any village), tasty pork and well cured ham, excellent varieties of cheese, fresh market vegetables, delicious local butter, inexpensive but good quality wine, excellent beers (mainly lager), the local 40% by alcohol volume calvados and only slightly less sturdy cider, fresh seafood etc. Suffice to say that one should not expect to go hungry although watching the waist line might be a challenge
Some background reading is always useful. For this purpose, I might suggest:
-"D-Day 1944: Voices From Normandy". Robin Neillands & Roderick de Normann. Cold Spring Press. ISBN: 1-59360-012-7. A beach by beach introduction to Operation Overlord. A very readable and decent introduction to the "Big Day".
-"Gardens of Remembrance: The men and their destiny". OREP Editions. ISBN: 978-2-912925-15-2. Normandy Battle Cemeteries: American, Canadian, British, German, Polish and French
-"Landing Beaches". Jean Quellien. OREP Editions. ISBN: 978-2-915763-70-9
-"D-Day: The Battle For Normandy". Antony Beevor, Penquin. A very readable and comprehensive look at Operation overlord and the multinational cast
-"Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day To The Liberation of Paris"
-"D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II". Stephen Ambrose. Based on the results of 1400 interviews with Normandy veterans, this work sets the stage by documenting the defenders, attackers, Commanders, original plan deviations in combat and the "feel" of the battlefield
-"The Guns of Normandy: A Soldier's Eye View, France, 1944". George Blackburn. A great resource of Canadian Army activity in Normandy during June to August, 1944
"Overlord: D-Day And The Battle For Normandy". Max Hastings. A very detailed and systematic work which has wonderful specificity but takes serious concentration on the part of the reader