Our Canadian Heroes
Trip Start May 05, 2007
11Trip End May 15, 2007
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Where I stayed
Hotel Des Gens de la Mar
We were headed to Arromanches, then Courseulles-sur-Mer and Juno Beach, and finally, Bény-sur-Mer, the final resting place of over 6,000 Canadians who lost their lives in Normandy.
On this day, we would be honouring our Canadian heroes.
Driving along the coast, the road overlooked the village of Arromanches, a tourist destination in summer. Now, in early May, it seemed a bit desolate, charming yet gloomy in the gray weather. Out in the sea, long straight structures were visible about one kilometer from shore
We headed towards the 360 degree cinema, at the top of the cliff, just minutes outside of the village. http://www.arromanches360.com/ We were moved to tears by the film. A group of French teenagers, on a school trip, were appropriately respectful and quiet, appreciating what had taken place in their country long before their birth. The film is vivid, filled with rare material and evocative images. Worth a detour.
Leaving the cinema, we walked outside for a short while. A statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the sea - she survived the invasion...
Under spitting rain, we drove from Arromanches to Courseulles -- a short drive of only a few kilometers. Our first destination was the Juno Beach Centre (http://www.junobeach.org/main.html) -- dedicated exclusively to the Canadian Forces actions and sacrifices during the Normandy invasion. The Centre was built just a few years ago, as a private museum staffed by young Canadians
We met Hélène, from Montreal, and Philippe, from Gatineau, university students who were over in France for a year, as employees and guides at the museum. Cool job, if you ask me...
The continued gloomy weather really enhanced the mood of reflection and somber thoughts that enveloped us. We walked to the beach itself. Walking through a passage way leading to the beach, I noticed, on a large billboard, the famous Verlaine poem, which, when read over the BBC airways in early June 1944, served as a signal to the French Resistance, that the invasion was indeed about to take place:
Les sanglots longs
blessent mon coeur
It was a well-chosen poem, if you ask me...
Dad walked on the beach and decided to go strike a conversation with a fisherman standing a few yards. Dad somehow had this "romantic" notion (I knew without him telling us...) that this old fellow had been there on the day of the invasion, and would have stories to tell... Well, it wasn't quite the case, but Dad seemed to enjoy the chat nonetheless.
Feeling a bit peckish, we headed into town, still thinking of the thousands of Canadian young men who had disembarked on this very beach, fighting to take the beach head, fighting for their lives. As we drove into the little town of Courseulles, there were memorials in the central little place, including an old Allied tank, and a monument dedicated to the Canadians. Another burst of national pride, I must say...
Our lunch at "L'épicerie" was ok, but not that great. We made the best of it, and laughed at the fact that Mom's and mine were pretty good, and that, sadly, Dad had gotten the worst of it. Is he just being difficult? :-)
After lunch, we left Courseulles, our mission to find the small village of Bény-sur-Mer and the Canadian cemetery
Driving through the green countryside slightly inland, we found the tiny, sleepy hamlet. There was no sign of the cemetery. We drove through Bény (two minutes at most...), kept going, turned around thinking we had missed it. I finally saw a sign for the cemetery, pointing us well out of town. We reached an isolated spot, and saw the entrance. A single car in the parking lot. Complete silence. A slight breeze undulating through the vast wheat fields around us made the only audible noise. The rain had stopped and a timid sun was finally making an appearance. We walked to the entrance. Once again, cleanliness and precision reigned, as in front of us appeared dozens of rows of thousands of small square white stones, all surrounded by blooming flowers. Breath-taking. I felt quite emotional, just contemplating the fact that more than 6,000 Canadians were buried here. The complete silence and absolute isolation of the place brought a sense of solitude, even loneliness, that was nearly unbearable. What a beautiful place... within sight and smell of the sea, yet well hidden inland. What a lonely place - sad and forlorn. And yet, I felt that the peace that now reigned in this place was the most fitting tribute to those brave souls. They fought for peace. They rest in peace.
We continued our way along the coast, headed towards the town of Ouistreham, along the way crossing the famous Pegasus Bridge, where a fierce battle raged between the Americans and Germans the night of June 5, 1944
We made a stop in the fashionable twin towns of Deauville-Trouville, where, for the first time on this trip, I felt under-dressed in my hiking pants and casual wear! This lovely - and slightly snobbish - town sees throngs of tourists invade it in summer months.
Hopping back in the car, we continued towards Le Havre, where we planned to spend the night. Our next stop on the way was in the old, romantic town of Honfleur, from where Jacques Cartier had departed for Canada so many years ago...
We walked around the old storefronts and restaurants in the small port, and enjoyed the lovely picturesque architecture of the centuries-old town. We stopped for a delicious ice cream at "Mécroche", and walked around to see the old wooden Eglise Ste-Catherine. We were under the charm of this beautiful little city that seemed to never have grown out of its medieval state, while clearly it evolved into a modern French town. People were strolling by in the port, and the sun was casting a soft orange glow as it slowly made its descent in the west.
We bade good-bye to the lovely town and headed east along the winding road
Nearing Le Havre, I was surprised to find myself in a totally modern city, with nothing to show for its 500-year old existence -- at least from afar... Entering the city just after "rush hour", I drove on large modern boulevards, in busy traffic. I wasn't used to that! We stopped to ask directions from nice police officers, and soon enough found our hotel, the Hotel Des Gens de la Mer, a pleasant, modern, clean facility, that seemed to have, at some point, catered mainly to sailors and other "gens de la mer".
We ate at the hotel, and quite tired after a very full day, went to bed early...