Fueled with our pastry-to-tent breakfast, we pulled out of Honfleur and headed west. Since we had only just the evening before decided to make the Normandy coast part of our itinerary, we hadn’t done much homework and only a rough idea of what was ahead. Our plan was to hug the coast, ending up in a campground somewhere near Juno Beach by nightfall.
Because it happened to be June 21st – mid-summer – that was a long way off. We first stopped in Trouville-sur-Mer / Deauville. Two towns converge at an inlet of the English Channel, such that you’re in one municipality on one side of said inlet, and the other when you cross a short bridge. We ducked into a shop for some provisions, and sat along the water’s edge constructing, and then consuming, a heroically delicious sandwich (if I do say so myself – it included a baguette leftover from our morning bakery delivery, our first avocado since Mexico, a soft, decadent Normandy cheese, and French moutarde!!).
We spent the early afternoon passing through dozens of seaside (channel-side) towns, which surprised us with their old-timey vacation-y feel. We rode by charming beaches dotted with mid-week vacationers. The shoreline was sprinkled with sleepy cafes, the occasional Ferris wheel or some other invented amusement, and vacation homes, not all of which might immediately invoke “seashore holiday” out of context (think dark-wood trimmed Tudor mansions with sand-castle making supplies in the driveway).
Somewhere around Ouistreham (for anyone who’s following along on the map or has a deep knowledge of northwestern French geography), we identified our desired campground destination for the evening, and confirmed that their reception would be open for another 1.5 hours. We had about seventeen more miles to ride, so we fueled up on trail mix and put our metal to the pedal (yes, ok, only Drew’s clip-in shoes have metal on them, but I simply couldn’t forgo the wordplay).
Along the way, we transitioned into the part of the Normandy beaches more focused on WWII. This sculpture made of bicycles, commemorating their important role in the war, felt particularly apropos:
We arrived triumphantly at “Canadian Scottish Campground” just before closing time. It was actually just a French campground, but took its name from the fact that the adjacent sector of Juno Beach was assigned to the Canadian Scottish Regiment as part of the D-Day invasions.
The campground had the good sense to have a bar on site, and keep it open an hour longer than the reception, so upon ditching our belongings in our campsite, we ordered some cold beers and french fries and reveled in that post-ride glow.
Around 9pm, we decided it was time to venture out for some real food, though the sun remained surprisingly high in the sky and apart from our increasingly growling stomachs, it didn’t really feel like dinner time. We wandered a short distance down the beach to the official Juno Beach memorials, taking them in as daylight began to fade.
By 10pm, we found ourselves seated in a charming seafood restaurant set back from the shoreline and perched above a shimmering tidal inlet. We were a little intimidated by the menu and its price structure – catering to those tudor residents down the beach, no doubt – but decided to get into it and treat ourselves on this longest of days and shortest of nights. We enjoyed a slow meal of beautiful french cuisine, taking turns sampling each other’s seafood dishes and guessing at some of the unusual and intriguing flavors. Outside, the sun began to sink further over the water, and the beautiful summer light filled the dining room with warmth.
We walked back to our campground close to midnight, bare feet in the cooling sand and daylight still waning on the horizon. It was all terribly romantic.
Then we were attacked by millions of tiny crabs.
As it turned out, this beach has some kind of sunset-triggered infestation of minuscule crustaceans. They resided in a ribbon of sand about three quarters of the way from the surf to the dunes, and seemed to exist in a constant state of panic, resulting in this relentless jumping around activity which made stepping into their habitat feel like somewhat like you had placed your feet into a beehive where someone just pressed the panic button. Not knowing if perhaps that is exactly what we had done, we both started running and stifling screams, wondering if we were being kamikaze-bombed by wasps and this was the end of the line for us. But soon enough we realized all the ankle collisions with these creatures was not generating any pain, and our logic took over. We slowed to peer more closely at the sand, and identified these crazy attackers for what they really were: tiny crabs.
We moved towards higher ground and composed ourselves, our screams turning to slightly-ashamed giggles. Sigh. Happy Midsummer, folks.
Day two on the Normandy coast, we biked further west, on a terrain of mostly flat, but then sometimes very not flat, coastline. At the peak of one such climb we arrived in Arromanches-les-Bains, the town along whose coastline the Mulberry port was installed. For non-WWII aficionados, this was an artificial harbor secretly built off-shore near England by the Allies, and towed from England to France in advance of the Normandy invasion so they could unload supplies (up to 9,000 tons per day) without having to wait to conquer and use an existing port (like Le Havre). An impressive feat of ingenuity, engineering, and stealth, whose remnants can still be seen from the town’s overlook.
We continued on, seeing more and more references to the war and its victories: the streets were lined with flagpoles with photos and names of fallen soldiers from across the allied troops, and messages of gratitude like “Merci, Americans” were written on the glass windows of roadside restaurants. Certainly one got the feeling that the very recent 75th anniversary of D-Day had much to do with all this commemoration, but also that in some respects, this part of France is in a permanent state of remembering.
We set up camp in Colleville-sur-Mer that afternoon, arriving early so we could unload and continue on to Omaha Beach. We first visited the Overlord Museum, which gave a very informative, if quite sensationalized, narrative of the military operations involved in WWII (operation Overlord being the codename for the allied invasion of Normandy). We learned a lot, and particularly appreciated this (inadvertent) homage to our profession:
Outside the museum, we sat on the sidewalk, ate some cherries, and agreed the whole exhibit was quite enlightening, but with all its detailed discussion of tanks and guns and battle paraphernalia, felt a bit like war porn.
We then rode out to the American WWII cemetery, which we had been told was a quite moving place (and is also the site of the first and closing scenes in Saving Private Ryan, for those who’ve seen it). We got there too late, though, and the gates had already been closed for the evening. Through them, one could see the resemblance to Arlington Cemetery, with American flags staked into the ground and a verdant, manicured lawn yawning to the cliffside overlooking Omaha Beach.
Then it was time to ride to the beach itself. It was a quite beautiful ride down to the water, and upon arrival, a gleaming memorial sculpture stood alone in the sand, with flowers and other offerings strewn around its base. We sat for a long while in silence, both imagining the peaceful, empty stretch of sand and ocean transformed into a military bloodbath.
War memorials have always felt strange to me. I never feel that they, or any other aspect of how we teach, learn, or collectively remember war, tells a complete story, nor challenges us to think critically about war as a concept. I find that we are so often directed to focus on the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers (which is certainly merited) and, in the U.S., on the glorified protection/saving of our ‘land of the free, home of the brave’ that we never get to questions of why, for example, the conflict escalated to war in the first place; why we, a supposedly evolved species, still resort to weapons and bombs so swiftly; why the traumas of war are so readily accepted as the necessary price to pay for geopolitical aims; and so on.
Needless to say, World War II stands out as a conflict that the U.S. really couldn’t not enter, and whose entrance was critical in turning the tide of fascism and genocide; some of these ‘whys’ are more easily answered in this case than many others. And, it isn’t necessarily France’s responsibility to pose these questions, as they were a nation under siege and with these memorials, are expressing gratitude to those who came to their rescue. And, it is certainly deeply important to memorialize the loss of life and bravery of those who fought. But doing so without a critical lens – without a deep questioning of why – is, I would argue, an insult to their memory and sacrifice.
Indeed, my questions, more broadly applied, remain. For example:
- To what extent did the unprecedented victories of WWII help to set the stage for a new post-war cultural norm in the U.S. in which the military came to be an almost untouchable, morally-superior force, seen as the best and most powerful means of protecting our interests and freedom (far more highly regarded and better funded than international diplomacy, foreign aid, and peace-building efforts)?
- And how has this enabled and justified subsequent wars and military campaigns – all in the name of a freedom that is nowhere nearly as threatened as it was in 1941 – as well as the exponential expansion of the military industrial complex since the mid-20th century (which has led us to a reality in which the Pentagon’s budget is roughly equal to what we spend on education, housing and community development, energy and the environment, food and agriculture, science, transportation, international affairs, and veteran’s benefits combined)?
- And what are the implications of the ever-tightening knot between militarism and patriotism, wherein those who question the unchecked institutional power of the military are considered un-American and naive?
Neither I, nor anyone else, gets to (nor is asked to) engage with these questions when we are taught about war or visit war memorials, Normandy included; as they go woefully unanswered, our collective relationship with conflict and violence remains limited, and I would argue, under-evolved. (I look forward to visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki one day, where I understand these types of questions are more central and well-treated, and would welcome other examples that buck this trend, if you’ve seen them.)
Stepping down from the soap box, we then continued our bike tour.
On Day 3 (or day 24, for those tracking the full tour), south through farmland we went, stopping in the pretty town of Bayeux to ogle an old cathedral and wimp out on paying the 10 euros to see the famous Bayeux tapestry.
From Bayeux we pushed on to Caen, traversing several miles of uninspired industrial landscape to get to our lodging where we’d be taking in two nights of rest. Just before our arrival we passed through a redeeming urban park that offered a nice leafy respite to all the industry, and a warm welcome to the city.
We showered, procured some Turkish food, and watched the evening’s Women’s World Cup matches. And then, thirty-six hours later, we found ourselves leaving Caen without having left our apartment! We didn’t plan it that way, but the rest and recuperation was, apparently, much needed. This is maybe the less glamorous side of long-term travel, in which sometimes, you just need to stay indoors, recharge, and accept the fear of missing out. Maybe someday we’ll return and do this city justice. But for now, onward to Rouen!