Friday, April 29, 2016

Day trip Paris to Normandy and Omaha Beach - a time to pause and reflect

Day trip Paris to Normandy - a time to pause and reflect

by Tom P Blake

My life partner of 18 years, Greta, and I are visiting Paris for 18 days. We are doing as much traveling as possible while we are able to. We planned to visit a lot of sites here, and a few cities in other parts of France. We have achieved our goal. 

While we were in Paris, it was very important to us to visit the beaches of Normandy where so many of our American soldiers were lost on D-Day, June 6,1944, liberating Europe in World War II. 

On one of the mornings, we took the train to Normandy, two hours north of Paris. Subconsciously, Greta and I must have sensed that we were doing something important that day when we both woke up at 2:30 a.m., even though our alarm was set for 4 a.m.

Our plan was to catch the 5:26 a.m. train from our local Fontenay aux Roses train station, a half-mile walk from our home. We were on the station platform when the train arrived.

These Paris metro trains usually stop at stations to allow passenger to exit and enter for 30-40 seconds or more before the doors close and the train moves on. But at our third stop, the doors remained open. Then an announcement: “This train is delayed because there is an incident.” We glanced at each other.

You must remember, since the Paris and Brussels recent terrorists’ attacks, Paris is on a high security alert. Then, we saw a German Sheppard being walked along the platform by a security man (at 5:45 a.m.). We wondered if the Normandy trip would be postponed. 

But, soon the car doors closed and we were on our way. Thirty minutes later, we got off at Gare Nord, the busiest train station in Paris, and took a one-stop shuttle train to Gare Lazare, the second busiest station in Paris.

From there, we boarded a high-speed train to the city of Caen, and there, changed trains to Bayeux, population 18,000, which reportedly was the first city in France liberated by the Allied forces after the Normandy invasion.

We had not made arrangements for a tour of the beaches. We were just winging it. Online, the tours were too long, and did not mesh with our train times. I had assumed that we could book a tour at the Bayeux station. I was wrong. There were a couple of vans picking up people who had pre-booked tours, but nothing else. 

We walked into the city and followed signs to the Bayeux Office of Tourist Information, a 25-minute walk. There, we booked a taxi to take us on a 2 ½ hour tour, with no narration, just the ride by Arnold, a very nice French driver. Not that the cost was a major consideration for us, but we spent nearly 100 euros less by taking the taxi vs. a guided tour.

To put the Normandy invasion into perspective: 156,000 U.S. troops took part in the D-day invasion. The invasion had been planned for a year.

Our first stop was at the Pointe du Hoc. We got out of the cab and walked to the coastline. This is the spot where approximately 250 U.S. rangers scaled 300-foot cliffs to surprise the German soldiers guarding the big guns that were perched up there. In this way, the giant German guns that protected the beaches could be disabled. At the end of the day, only 93 rangers could continue the battle, the rest had been killed or wounded.

And this is where awe and amazement set in for Greta and me. The courage of the soldiers who had been dumped into the cold waters of the English Channel to come ashore and then to fight was almost beyond comprehension. When you are there, and see where it happened, it gives you the chills. It wasn't just Americans, Canadians, Brits, and other countries were represented as well.

Next, our driver took us to Omaha Beach. One cannot be prepared for the emotion that one feels there. Coming ashore at Omaha Beach, 3,683 allied troops died. On D-day, 2,499 U.S. troops died in the overall invasion.

                               Omaha Beach 
For me, as a former member of the Amphibious Navy, walking on Omaha Beach, I was simply overcome with pride for what happened here. I gathered up six peddles from that beach to share with friends and family who would appreciate a token of the sacrifice made there by our troops.

And then, to the American Cemetery, located atop a hill overlooking Omaha Beach.

For as far as the eye can see, there are white crosses dotting the cemetery. Buried there: 9,387 of our troops, including three women. In investigating the grave stones, we found the burial site of one of the women. The cemetery is just staggering. These brave Americans helped save the world.

Of course, there is so much more to see in Normandy, particularly, if you are a war historian. One could spend 3-4 days. But Greta and I had accomplished what we had planned. All of our emotions had been left on the battle sites and cemetery.

As we walked to our cab, Greta said, “It is a place where everyone who can should come and no one should ever forget.”

In the battle of Normandy over a couple of weeks, 425,000 troops had been killed, which includes approximately 200,000 German soldiers. One has to ask, “Is war really worth it?”

Before going back by train to Paris, we got to spend an hour in the small, charming city of Bayeux. We walked past a restaurant with this sign in the window:

It was nice to see that the French people are grateful to us for the sacrifice we made to liberate their country. 

And let me say this about the French people: we have experienced some wonderful acts of kindness from them since we have been here. Starting with the woman whose home we have stayed in for 18 days, nice gesture.  And on two different times French people have gone out of their way to help us in train stations. And another French man we were visiting with, drove us back to our home here instead of taking us to his local train station. That round trip took him two hours.

As we headed to the Bayeux train station to return to Paris, Greta said, “Not bad for a couple of 75-year-olds accomplishing what we did today.”

I gave her a big hug.

There are lots of photos of our trip on the website listed below, including many photos of Normandy. Click on the "Travel Blog" tab at the top of the home page. There are 26 posts of our trip to Europe. Scroll down to the post # 2 and that is the Normandy post.

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