Our entry into Bayeux wasn’t very auspicious, as we bumped our suitcases along to our hotel to find it closed… at almost 10pm. Another traveller who was on our train was in the same predicament, so we asked in a few places until we came to the Luxembourg Hotel, where the hotel attendant graciously offered to call around and figure out what was up. It turned out that city hall had shut it down for some shady reason or another, and they hadn’t bothered to so much as send an email or even leave a note on their door. Furthermore, as this was the tail end of French summer vacation, so the entire province was, no exagerration, literally booked full. We were lucky that the lady at the desk was so extraordinarily kind, as she let us stay in a conference room on some extra cots she had, because otherwise we would have been sleeping on park benches.
After that shocking introduction, and a surprisingly excellent night’s sleep, we got up early and beelined for the train station, where we could catch a bus out to Omaha Beach, site of the D-Day landings on June 6th, 1944 that began the snowball rolling downhill that would finally crush Nazi Germany in less than a year. These days Omaha Beach and its neighbors Sword, Utah, Gold, and Juno are wide stretches of sand with windsurfers and seagulls and only a few odd remains of a concrete bunker overlooking them or the rusted out remains of what may have been a landing craft embedded in the beach to evidence their bloody history.
Above Omaha Beach is the iconic and affecting Normandy American Cemetery, with its pristine green lawns and row upon neat row of small white crosses and stars of David… over 9,000 of them. The sheer expanse of these crosses really drives home the bloodshed and sacrifice of this turning point in history.
While we skipped the nearby D-Day museum, we visited its larger cousin back in the city of Bayeux, and besides seeing uniforms, armaments, and vehicles from all involved in the invasion (including some patches I’d inherited from my great uncle, who was there that fateful day), I was most struck by how long it took to push the Nazis back after making a beachhead on the days surrounding June 6th. It took two months to capture the territory we crossed in 20 minutes when returning from Omaha, and three to break the line and capture Caen, but when they finally did the war was well on the way to being won, ending nine months later.
We walked around the shop-filled town a bit, saw the requisite beautiful centuries-old Cathedral, and tried some pomeau and calvados, apple wine and sharp apple brandy respectively, the latter of which was good enough to buy a small bottle to take back home. The flavor is a fiery, Scotch-like flavor with just a hint of its principal ingredient.
The highlight of the town, though, was the other element of French class that always stuck with me- the Bayeux Tapestry, whose pictures framed the margins of the pages of one of my textbooks. The Tapestry is a foot-long woven linen and wool account of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and victory at Hastings in 1066, produced shortly thereafter. The fact that it has survived these thousand years, much less remained so vivid and colorful, is nigh on miraculous, especially after Napoleon and Hitler alike have gotten their hands on it. The level of detail in the tapestry is also something not readily apparent from the pictures, as well as how color and contrast are used to give the pictures more liveliness than you’d ever expect from a thousand year old 2D piece of cloth.