France with Deb and Gerry: Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

It is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion this year, and we wanted to visit the sites of the Normandy landings from June 6, 1944 during Deb and Gerry’s visit with us.  After seeing Mont Saint-Michel, we drove to Saint Laurent-sur-Mer to see Omaha Beach and Colleville-sur-Mer to see the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Signs to Omaha Beach
Signs to Omaha Beach

It was a beautiful day on Omaha Beach, the weather was perfect.  The ocean looking toward the English Channel was also perfect, not like on D-Day 70 years ago with 5 to 6 foot swells, 59 degree temperature, and force 4 winds. The day we were there we saw swimmers in the water, kitesurfers working the waves, and people walking the beach barefoot.  I kept looking at how exposed WWII troops would have been on the beach, thinking about the books I’ve read describing the D-Day landings, and seeing in my mind that horrific 25-minute opening scene to the film “Saving Private Ryan.”  Massive sacrifice and history was made at that location. Tracy said it was like seeing an old photo overlaid atop a recent one, an odd sense of realism and history merged together in your mind – both compelling and disconcerting at the same time.

We did get the opportunity to chat for a while with an author who had a display highlighting veterans of WWII whom he interviewed both for the display near the beach and his current book. He shared stories of the battle, some of which we knew and some we had never heard. Though we didn’t buy his book, we did enjoy talking with him for a while and appreciated his insight and suggestions.

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Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. It covers 172 acres (70 hectare) and commemorates the remains of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom were killed during the invasion of Normandy and the ensuing military operations in World War II. The names of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but could not be located or identified are inscribed on the walls of a semicircular garden at the east side of the memorial. There is also a 22 foot tall bronze sculpture, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.

Like all other overseas American cemeteries in France for World War I and II, France has granted the United States a special, perpetual concession to the land occupied by the cemetery, free of any charge or any tax. This cemetery is managed by the American government by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  The US Flag flies over the cemetery.

Deb and Tracy were able to locate the markers for the Niland brothers, whose story was part of the inspiration for the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Though they did have to wait for a bit while a group of French tourists finished visiting, they did get the opportunity for a few photos of the brothers’ markers which are side-by-side in the cemetery. There are 45 sets of brothers buried here, only 33 of them are buried side-by-side. In addition there are 3 medal of honor recipients, a father and son (also buried side-by-side), 307 unknown burials and four women.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is the American Battle Monuments Commission’s most visited cemetery, receiving about a million visitors each year.

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Part 1:  Paris with Deb and Gerry: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Love Locks, Arc de Triomphe, and the Luxembourg Garden

Part 2:  France with Deb and Gerry: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

Part 4:  Carcassonne with Deb and Gerry: Le Cité de Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

France with Deb and Gerry: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

After visiting Paris, we picked up our rental car in Versailles and drove to Normandy to see Mont Saint-Michel, the ‘Wonder of the West.’

The car rental process was slightly more complicated than it sounds.  Prior to Deb and Gerry’s arrival, Tracy tried to reserve a rental car with the standard unlimited mileage option that is available from the US websites. However, the results she kept getting was a low mileage, not unlimited mileage quote. Tracy asked Deb to try making a reservation from the US and Deb was able to get a quote with unlimited mileage for the same car from the same rental agency.  Tracy wasn’t sure why there was a difference depending which country a rental inquiry originates from. Perhaps the rental agencies’ websites track the potential client IP addresses. In the end, Deb had to reserve the car while she was still in the US so that we could get the unlimited mileage package we wanted. Another oddity of life in France.

Mont Saint-Michel is a small tidal island with a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey, monastery, and city surrounded by fortifications dating back to the 8th century. The Abbey was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. It is located approximately 600 metres (0.6 miles) off the coast of Normandy, at the mouth of the Couesnon River. This island is about 100 hectares (247 acres) in size. One of France’s best known landmarks, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over 3 million people visit Mont Saint-Michel annually.

Located between the regions of Brittany and Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel’s unique location created a tidal causeway (a path uncovered only at low tide) that allowed early pilgrims to walk to the island’s abbey during low tide.  However, high tide made the island extremely defensible with the possibility of drowning or stranding attackers caught on the causeway when the tide would come in and fully surround the island. There is an impressive 14 metres (46 feet) difference between the high and low water marks. Mont Saint-Michel was unconquered during the Hundred Year War. In 1433 a small garrison was able to defend the island from an England assault.  The island, like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, was also used as a prison in the 1600-1700’s.

Tracy, Gerry, and Deb at Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Tracy, Gerry, and Deb at Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France

We stayed in a cabin at the beautiful Camping Haliotis in Pontorson. The cabin was only 9 km from Mont Saint-Michele, we liked the facility and its amenities so much we decided to stay an extra night. We were lucky to be visiting on the last night that Mont Saint-Michele was open in the evening, so we explored the island as it transitioned from daylight to night time.  We drove to the parking area and took the shuttle bus out the raised causeway to Mont Saint-Michele.  We had a great time exploring the Abbey, the town, the fortifications, and watching the resident nuns use a hoist to transfer groceries and supplies up a cable into the upper Abbey.

The sunset was absolutely beautiful over Mont Saint-Michele.  It really is a “wonder.”

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Part 1:  Paris with Deb and Gerry: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Love Locks, Arc de Triomphe, and the Luxembourg Garden

Part 3:  France with Deb and Gerry: Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Part 4:  Carcassonne with Deb and Gerry: Le Cité de Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix