Thursday, May 14, 2015

More France for Memorial Day

Who hasn't heard of Normandy?  My grandparents talked non stop about it, because it was one of the pivotal places of their lifetime.  I know, that dates me too.  World War II was something that those of us today can't even fathom.  It was war on a scale that the world has not known since.  Normandy France has been the center of more than one conflict in their history, given that the name comes from the British from their time on the land.  Today, Normandy is a beautiful part of Northern France, not far from Paris, overlooking the English Channel.  Mont St. Michel is at the end of it hanging out with Brittany.  There are many seaside villages with artists hanging out along the harbors, and there are artist's homes that have become famous with the art world.  But, this part of France is known mostly from the outside for one thing.

The beaches.  Omaha, Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword were the names.  On June 6, 1944 these were the site of one of the largest invasions ever undertaken.  Thousands were killed on both sides of the conflict.  The remnants of this invasion and ensuing battle still lie off the shores today.  The men came ashore and made their way up the sheer cliffs that rise from the channel all over the area.  It was difficult upon difficult, but the allies made their way through hell to free Europe from the Nazis.  It worked.  And now we should all take a little time to remember the sacrifices that were made on our behalf.

The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach is probably the most well known memorial to D-Day.  Thousands of soldiers are buried here.  During those times there were many battles raging around the world, and many people were facing extermination.  It's something that is hard to wrap your mind around today.  The soldiers that came here to fight, were fighting for peoples right to live.  The race war was still in full swing in America, even though the Civil War was supposed to have brought that to a halt, Jewish people were being exterminated by the Nazi's and persecuted by Communists and Muslims alike.  Japan was judging themselves better than everyone, causing emigrants from that country to be persecuted all over the world.  They all came to Normandy to fight, and they came to make a difference.  They came to stop the madness.  For that time, they all came together and they all fought together for a single cause.  And in the end, thousands of them lie in rest together.  Somber, yet noble.  We all should think about where we would be today without these brave men who gave their lives so we could stay free.

The American Cemetery at Normandy is visited by over 2 million people each year.  There are many symbolic spots in the cemetery, like the garden which flows with the river of freedom.  There's the overlook that maps out the beaches below for you.  There are statues and monuments throughout.  It's something that will move you, no matter who you are.  But there's more.  Not far is the German Cemetery.  In the middle of that one there is a monument to the parents who also lost their sons in the war.  This gives you a chance to really think.  Sometimes I think that we should do that while on vacation.  German boys, Austrian boys, Swiss boys, and boys from all over Europe were swept up in the propaganda created by Hitler and  his men.  They believed in their leaders as we all do.  They gave their lives for Hitler, and they died doing what they had been led to believe was right.  War is senseless.  We all know this, so take a little time to visit the German Cemetery and see the other side.  There also is the British Cemetery, and this one is not only beautiful, but the melting pot of the place.  Here you will find graves and monuments to soldiers from several countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Poland, and much more.  This is also where you will find the French soldiers that helped us fight for their freedom.  I know a lot of people that think they know all about Normandy.  The people that I know don't know about that.

Caen, Arromanches, Bayeux, are the towns closest to the beaches.  Arromanches is what I would call ground zero.  The war museum at Caen is the place to go to learn all about what happened here.  They also have a section dedicated to the rise and fall of Communism and a gallery of Nobel Peace Prize Winners.  There's a lot to learn about there.  Bayeux is the home of the Bayeux Tapestry.  This tapestry is about 80 meters long, over 900 years old and is the most famous tapestry in the world.  It depicts the Battle of Hastings and was possibly commissioned by William the Conqueror himself.  Not sure about that however.  The tapestry is housed in a museum that tells all about the history of the Normans.  It's a great stop. 

But here's the adventure that I think everyone will find fascinating.  The beaches themselves.  Once you've visited the cemeteries, the museums and the towns that were liberated along the shores; you should see where the battles raged.  I advocate taking an educational vacation, and this is one of the best.  Remnants from the military landings are all over the place.  Bunkers, spikes, barbed wire, weapons, barges, boat hulls.  It's amazing.  The allies made a sea barrier to help them land, and it is still there.  You can see it right from the beach.  These folks who live in this area will never forget the war.  It is still all around them.  Amazing.  Even more amazing, they don't want to forget.  They are proud to have survived the battle and the Nazis.  They are thankful to all the allied forces who came to help.  It's one of those places that no one should overlook.  It's moving, not thrilling, but well worth the visit.

Tanks are on display in a lot of places.  It's not what you would expect.  It's not what you're used to hearing about when it comes to France.  Many people speak English in this part of the country, unlike the rest of France.  History is something that the locals are well versed in.  There are so many tours that you can take around the area.  There are people who lived through it still there telling the stories.  Most travel agencies have a tour to this area of France.  It's something that most people don't really think of anymore, but it is something that you should think about.  It's all part of my belief that we should know enough that we don't ever let it happen again.  Knowledge is the thing that we can use to battle tyranny and annihilation.  Most of us lost ancestors in that war.  We should remember that.

The beaches are beautiful.  The cliffs are beautiful.  The towns are beautiful.  The food is good, the sights are amazing, the locals are friendly, and the history is alive.  The beaches of Normandy are something that will stay with you for a lifetime.  They should.  That's why the governments of the world have gone to so much time and trouble to make them into the monuments that you see today.  Go and learn something about World War II.  Go and see the amazing land that is called Normandy.

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