Today was a very long day. Emotionally tough as well as physically demanding. On the bright side I got lots of free stuff! After waking up to all of my clothes being completely clean and dry thanks to Di, I noticed my chain was rusty from all of the rain last night, rolling through the little town of Carentan I found a small bike shop run by an old man. After a bit of pointing and my pigeon-French he came out with a paint brush and some oil and cleaned it right up – the first freebie of the day!
Onwards it didn’t take long to find the fishing villages that are dotted around the landing beaches. I wandered around a fish market where a kind lady cracked open an oyster and gave it to me for free. Delicious and fresh!
The hills along the coast next to the beaches felt like a normal part of France, but for the whole day I could imagine the Allies coming over the hill and advancing against enemy attacks.
The first memorial was that of the Pointe du Hoc. 213 Rangers stormed a valuable German bunker which contained anti-aircraft and other gun turrets. Very valuable to the Germans to hold off the landings, but not much use to the allies once they took it. Hence the Germans sent in many attacks to try and get it back. Just 90 of the rangers survived but it was one the major primary objectives of the landings.
Onwards I cycled the several kilometres along Omaha Beach. It is a gorgeous looking beach in the sunshine that is filled with history of another of the American landing beaches. A large memorial in the centre stands tall and gives a great sense of pride to the area.
Meeting a nice American couple who were part of a big cycling group, they warned me that the American Cemetery was likely closed because of the American budget cuts. I continued regardless and grabbed a quick lunch where another American couple from Chicago said they had visited the cemetery just two days before. They were very kind and even bought me lunch (freebie number 2)! Unfortunately though the cemetery was closed yesterday and today because of these cuts; therefore the iconic images of the white cross gravestones will have to wait until I return here.
I am incredibly upset with the American government that they closed this place. Think of the families who cannot visit, and people like me (and several people I met today) who have travelled the world to visit and pay our respects. Surely the visitor centre can keep it open with donations? America, you really are messing things up right now – healthcare, gun-care and now forgetting your fallen soldiers.
Continuing I found a visitor centre at Gold Beach where I met a lovely Canadian family – the Father of which had just done a three week trip around northern France and whose family recently flew out to visit the sites here with him by car. They treated me to an incredible 360 degree movie (freebie number 3) that had some of the most incredible footage from the war. It told the story from the landings, to the liberation of Cherbourg where I had been yesterday and then continued the 100 day journey to Paris. Not only was the movie emotional, but it made me realise how meaningful the route I am taking is.
Following this moment of reflection I pedalled on. Stopping at the Canadian beach, Juno. Continuing, now exhausted, I reached the final British lead beach, Sword. These beaches and monuments are so important, yet strangely a few people I have met talk of how pretty the beaches are. It’s a lot more about the history of the 37,000 allies who gave their lives for the liberation of Europe here. Not to mention the 55,000 Germans who were killed in combat too.
Finally I pushed on to Caen where I cycled next to a man who was a professional French actor; he worked with Woody Allen in Midnight to Paris as well as a comedian through the Tour de France. As the sun was setting I was enjoying the cycle route that followed the river into my final destination for the day. I reflected on how nice everyone had been to me, and even how some frenchmen complimented my awful French!
To finish the day off, I wandered around town centre until I found a quiet little bar; here I shared a beer with a young Frenchman who only spoke a little English. Somehow we managed to have quite a deep conversation. His grandmother was married to a Frenchman who was part of La Resistance. When he was found by the Nazis, his brother was shot and he was sent to Auschwitz where he was killed. The then widowed grandmother ended up falling in love with a German during the occupation and had her head shaved after the liberation. A very interesting story that was shared after a very long day over a beer between two modern men.
Tomorrow will entail just cycling and reflecting on the road to Evreux (a visit to the Caen – Normandy Memorial Centre for History and Peace).