Time to move west in Normandy region and we make a couple of stops before heading to Mēmorial de Montormel “The final battle in Normandy”. This museum and memorial is ontop of a hill that was the stronghold of the Polish division in the war that the Allies (American, British, Canadian, French and Polish) surrounded the Germans, this was called the “corridor of death” which was in the middle of the Falaise-Chambois pocket, this is one hour drive away from the D-day beaches.
This area after 72 days of fighting the Allies closed in on the Germans on the 19th to 21st of August 1944 in which a total of 100,000 German soldiers were in this pocket, 50,000 managed to escape, 10,000 were killed and 40,000 taken prisoner. Over looking the surroundings from this hill top you see beautiful countryside with hedgegrows and forest, to think for a moment it was a bloody conflict with unthinkable casualties. It was said the stench of dead bodies and decaying bodies with clouds of flies made this unsanitary to use as farm land in years to come. 2 days of fighing saw this pocket closed after the German counter attacked and put an end to the fierce fighting of this region.
This museum was really illustrative and had great visuals on how this battle panned out, with a panoramic view onto the fields. You had photo’s from the battles that ensued here, one of many catching my attention was the windy lane road that was incased in bodies, horse and carts in a bloody attempt to escape. With an array of equipment on show that has been found in this area, they still find daily objects from these battles. Finally a movie that best describes the situation leaves you walking out with a contemplative moment that young men were fighting for a means of an end.
So after a taste of what is to come we head to the west coast of France and explore a small fishing region called Saint Malo that is fortified with walls that seem to be built on a peninsula over looking the angry seas. The two forts in front of Saint Malo clearly shows of an important fortification against the English and Dutch in naval combat as you can only access these in low tide. The town itself has a really cool feel with nautical shops of globe maps and wooden sail boats and boulangerie pâtisserie shops that after seeing one you will pass another two shops down. For some reason Saint Malo has a connection with Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This place is a cool little fishing village with remarkable views out from the city walls, this was a short stop with a timely break in the rain storm we seem to be driving in, we catch the town in atmospheric conditions with the sun breaking through. Next stop Du Mont-Saint-Michel.
Following the storm we camp out 45 minutes walk from Du Mont-Saint-Michel it’s pouring with rain with some campers getting stuck in the mud, we promptly move onto higher gravel ground. Weather forecast for clear skies around 7pm we watch and hope this storm passes.
Evening rolls around and we see a break of blue sky appearing one end of the horizon, we make bee line for Du Mont-Saint-Michel. The history of this place dates back to 708AD when Aubert Bishop of Avranches built on Mont-Tombe in honour of the Archangel which then became a major monument for pilgrimage. This became inhabited and the town grew in the 10th century and by the 14th century extended as far as the foot of the rock. This fortification being an impressive stronghold in the 100 year war also repelled all English assault and thus becoming a symbol of national identity for France. Walking up through the draw bridge and the iron gate pulled up, this was medieval as they come. Walk through the town you walking upwards into the fortress itself, little shops with old signs gives the feeling of the place. At the top we pay for a visit around the old Abbey. Here they have light shows which seem to depict an eagle, it’s abit corney and felt they could of done better in representing this place as the Abbey itself is quite stunning.
Up top and in the forecourt with a small garden offered majestic sunsets in the stormy clouds. Interesting place and easy to see why it’s such a major tourist attraction, the way in which it was built just adds to the impressive nature of it. We didn’t even see this surrounded by water which also would be impressive, but to finish of with the sunset turned out to be picture perfect.
Time now to head north to the Normandy D-day beach landings, in which we head to the area of Utah beach. Upon coming here it’s quite easy to get lost in the amount of memorials and museums you can do in this one region, and by alot there’s over a hundred sites. Me and Karen select a handful of places that will teach us and remind us of what took place here, we visit the The Memorial to the return to Liberty. Here it gave us a better undertstanding how D day took place and the beaches all broken down into 5 places Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beach it also gave us a great deal of understanding of the daily life of the French under German occupation. With having to fight for the Germans, rations and coupons you scarcely obtained and the ongoing curfews they were subject to alot of propaganda in trying to deter the French into doing anything. Of course there were pockets of French resistance that liaisoned with the English to the German wherebouts and this in turned helped immensely with D Day landings. But also becoming much more aware is the German “Atlantic Wall” set up all along the coastline that strethced all the way up to Norway, this formidable defence was built with certainty that the Allies will come this way to attack. These included the Block houses, the Germans underwent strict observation from Rommel the head of the Panzer divisions to ensure it’s superiority. The Germans also flooded marshlands behind the defence front to make it even more difficult for the eventual D day landings. A thoroughly descriptive museum that had equipment, and mock ups of the way they lived and every day life of the occupation. There is an old bunker there built next to the fortified walls. Walking out onto the beach is grim, knowing full well how many people died not just D day but the course of the war, here the stories of a red sea with bodies strewn along this one beach of five to meet an objective and horrendous German fire.
We move onto the next museum called Museē de Debarquement, here containing alot of information, equipment and artillery it also has 1 of 6 surviving B-26 planes. A grim discovery was boots made for German soldiers that was insulated with the hair of the millions of jews murdered in concentration camps. Another side to the D day landings is the bombardment of artillery and defenses the night before the landings of troops, in the early hours of the morning would see paratroopers placed behind enemy lines to destabilize and link up with eventual comrades storming the beaches. Americans planned to take Cherbourg a heavily defended port for the Germans, casualties here for the Americans were 22,119 with 13,564 wounded and 2,811 killed, the Germans had 14,000 killed or wounded and 39,000 prisoners while the Allies head south and try and take out Caen. In the eventual success of D day they constructed temporary ports sunking of old ships to create a base which was called “Mulberry”. Over 1,000,000 people would pass through these ports in 5 months.
We make a trip to Pointe du Hoc which is a position the Germans had atop a cliff overlooking the channel, here is the remarkable story of brave american troops scaling the cliffs under intense fire to seize control of this point. After bombardment it was quickly noticed the Germans moved their big 155mm gun inland after one had been destroyed in arial bombings. The ones moved inland were pointed towards Utah beach and subsequently the americans disengaged in time before the troops landed on Utah beach. The timing of all this planned attack had greatly helped the overall situation but in no means an easy feat with many casualties taken on both sides, Pointe du Hoc had cliffs of 100ft for the Rangers to scale with rope ladders, grappling hooks and rope, often using there daggers to help assist the climb. 225 started this ascent with the first man taking 5 minutes to get to the top, 90 survived to the end of the day only for the following morning to have a relief force arrive. Walking around this site just takes you back how dangerous it was back then, the amount of craters alone from the aerial bombardment is just plagued all over the place, with many of the block houses still well intact showing the integrity of these bunkers built. Walking around the cliff edge it’s visible to this day the rolled up barb wire lining the edge that of once men scaling these heights, with the view over the sea front it offered a grim and airy encounter of what had happened here. Followed by a movie of the men who took action here, it was a sombre reminder that even after the war some 70 years on, how could one grip the reality of life after being witness to such bravery.
We move onto Bayeux Memorial and Bayeux Cemetery, the memorial has the names of 1,800 dead from battle in Normandy and the cemetery has 4,000 buried the largest WWII cemetery. These were the people who served for the British and Commonwealth and also Canada. The museum gave more to light of the British and Canadian landings on Gold, Juno and Sword beach. This was to advance to Bayeux and Caen which the later turned out to be a long and drawn out fight with the Germans. The D Day landings was the first time in 4 years the allies had set foot in France. A really informative few days to take in all that has happened around here, of course you knew alot about this with talks with your families etc who pass the stories on and learn at school the horrors of what had become. It was an interesting experience and one that will stay in your memory for the rest of your life.
Heading on through the cidre route of France our destination is Thiepval Memorial, here is a monument built to commemorate the fallen commonwealth soldiers of World War One. This is the Somme sector where 72,000 mens names are engraved on the walls of this memorial, died in this one area of the war in 1915 – 1918. The names are written on 16 pillers all inscribed with not a single free space left, it’s quite horrifying.
For the whole region of Somme there are 150,000 commonwealth service men buried in 250 military cemeteries and 150 civilian cemeteries. There are 6 memorials to the missing that commemorate only by name and more than 100,000 whose graves are not known. The battle of Somme became a world arena and meeting point for over 20 nationalities and where 3,000,000 soldiers fought on a front of 45km. The front line extended from near Ypres (Belgium) to the Switzerland border. Learning more about the war that took place here, and the extent of trench warfare is one that never leaves your memory. To find motivation and courage to charge out towards hailing fire of machine guns to gain a few yards, full well knowing that casualties are a foregone conclusion. You will smell the stench of bodies, see the scattered limbs and the cold and wet mud, life here along this stretch would just look so desolate. Yet even after 21 years we dip back into a dark time for more suffering, has nothing been learnt.
We move to a place called Arras which is south from Thiepval. Here remarkably a company of NZ tunnellers who were engineers built an underground tunnel to assist the Allied in getting as close to the front line as possible. This is called the La Carriére Wellington which linked lime stone quarries from the 17th century,
The tunnel in total was 19km long and was the first of a surprise attack on the Germans in an offensive on 9th April 1917 at 5:30am in which 1,500 came up first then later a total of 20,000 came up. The rock underground is made of lime stone and had been labelled north to south with NZ cities, this cave had electric lighting. The New Zealanders dug a total of 80 metres a day. They were in this cave for around 9 months and to imagine the life down in this cold, damp and at times wet caves, the art work drawn on the walls to keep the men occupied in times of rest. It was said the work they did was a defining point in the war on those lines.
Completing this tour we drive through the french countryside towards Reims, peaceful beautiful farming landscape this was once a barron hell hole of fierce fighting, memorial after memorial we loose count of the number of white crosses, grave stones and memorials. To imagine the life these villages went through being in the middle of this chaos, it’s an eery feel to just to contemplate what was happening all those years ago, but most important is to remember.
Reims is and will always be known for producing champagne, and that is the main reason for being here! But first a little look around Reims town itself and the buildings here truly represent french architecture, sculptures and ornate designs you will see this through the photos. We take a look at the Notre Dame of Reims which was built in 1211 and has been known to host french royal coronations. It’s impressive detail standing in the forecourt surrounded by little cafe’s with locals sipping away at their champagnes, this church architecturally is impressive, defiantly worth the visit. This area was also the head quarters for David Eisenhower, who was at the time of World War Two the Chief of the Allied invasion. Here in Reims we went to his head quarters where the Germans signed the unconditional surrender that marked the end of the war in Europe.
Later on that evening we visit the Notre Dame at 10pm for the light show performance on the front of this church, very cleaver in how they did this and you can see by the different images I have taken.
The next day we se off to Pommery one of Reims biggest Champagne producers, here they have millions of bottles of champagne in their cellar that to this day are undrinkable due to the age. This winery has been around since the 19th century and we take a tour underground to the cellars. A tip for you champagne drinkers, if you’re given a bottle store it in the dark and you must drink it before 3 years or it will be past its best by date. Originally this winery was on task to crack the British market in which it did so, becoming now one of the biggest champagne producers. They have 300 hectares of vineyards and the underground cellars are 18kms long with each individual cellar named a place in the world where that champagne is sold. These two things that were quite impressive was that all grapes must be hand picked and that it is illegal to advertise champagne in France.
After our tour we are given a glass of Brut and Rose to kick of our tastings here in Reims.
Next stop is in Epernay where there are winerys gallore and we pick two smaller local winerys to have some tastings. First place is called Guy Charbaut Champagne and has been established since 1936, have been through 3 generations of producing this Champagne. We have 4 tastings ranging from Brut, Rose to their vintage. Wine purchased for our trusty collection building up in our watering can….. Quite an odd mix of booze that’s for sure!
Next and final winery is L Bénard-Pitois which was established in 1850 we have some tastings and try various wines from Brut to Brut reserve, Demi-sec and Rose. And that is a pretty fine way to toast an end to France.
It has been one hell of a journey heading through with such varied things to see, France is certainly a place to come back too, we haven’t really done it justice and it is such a large country. So much history here with the prehistoric art work in the caves to vintage french château and of course the food and booze. One of the best wine regions in the world you also have the best pastries ever! And so it should they invented the stuff!
Sadly we have to head into Germany detouring away from Lyon in which a catch up with friends shall come another day, Green Machine is starting to feel the burdon of long distance travelling and has much needed tlc to be done when we head back into UK, til then Au revoir.