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Published: October 29th 2006
Ok, now that this entry is almost a full month behind, I figured I would try and get caught up a bit.
Leaving Paris was interesting. I got to the train station a full 2 hours before the train was due to leave in order to wait in line to make a reservation. After an hour in line I discovered that I didn't need a reservation on this particular train. Fun. So, I sat around waiting for the departure board to update and tell me which platform the train was leaving from. There were tons of people milling around in front of the board, and now in retrospect I know why. When the board finally did update, it was only 15 minutes before our train was due to leave, and several trains at once were updated. Now, try to imagine the 200 or so people that were standing around suddenly realizing which train they had to go to. It was chaos. I hadn't expected it to be particularly busy heading over to Normandy, but boy was I wrong.
I got myself onto the train and found an empty seat. As I was looking around I realized that none of
Point du Hoc
the seats had reservations. I thought that was a bit odd. Then I noticed that people were definitely holding reservations in their hands. I got kicked out of the first seat I was in because someone showed up with a reservation. I got lucky with the second seat I picked, it ended up being one of the few non-reserved ones in my car. As I sat there, I was wondering why there was so much chaos and why the reservations weren't marked. I discovered the reason later in the day, and I'll get to that in a bit.
The ride over was fairly painless, aside from the enormous man sitting next to me. I did manage to get him to sit next to the window so at least I wasn't too squished. He got off one whole stop before I did, but oh well. The train pulled in to Bayeux around 2. Even though Bayeux is a pretty small town, they saw fit to put the train station well away from the center. Luckily there were signs for both tourist information and the hostel. So, I just headed straight there. As I walked through the pretty town, I was
struck by how enormous and impressive the cathedral is for such a small place.
I got to the hostel and there were a couple of guys hanging around in the lobby. I approached the one behind the desk to check in, and he told me he was waiting to do the same thing. So, apparently, the proprietor was nowhere to be found. They had some beer and I joined them sitting in the office drinking beer for about 45 minutes until the owner finally showed up. She was really nice, but didn't speak more than a couple words of english so it took some time to sort out what we wanted.
After getting our rooms, we set off to figure out how to see the D-day beaches. There were basically three options: take a tour, rent a car, or ride a bike. I was leaning towards the bike option, but the weather looked pretty dubious so I wasn't sure. We ended up going to the tourist office to enquire about tours and bike rental. At the office, we discovered that the tours were something like 50€ for the day, which I thought was a bit excessive. At that
The older memorial
point I remembered that my giudebook had mentioned that if you had 3 or more people you could rent a car. Well, we had 3 so we asked about car rental and she pointed us towards some places.
We walked to the first one, which happened to be right next to the train station. I asked about price, and they wanted 40€ plus gas for the day. We were willing to pay up to 100€ split 3 ways, so that seemed like a steal. We checked out the car, and it was of course tiny. But, that wasn't the only problem. It was a stick, and I have never learned to drive stick and neither had the other two. They did have a somewhat larger car that was an auto, so we went back inside to see how much that one would be. They wanted 65€ for it, which we still thought was reasonable, so I (being the only one over 21) put down my name and we arranged to pick it up in the morning.
With the car settled, we went in search of more beer (of course) and some food. We found a kebab place and
ate there before grabbing 2.5L each of cheap beer at the grocery store. After we got back (and had a couple of the tiny bottles on the way back) we decided to play chess on the giant chessboard they had setup outside. It was made of slate and measured 10 feet by 10 feet (or so) and had pieces that were about 2 feet tall. Pretty cool. Anyway, the first game went quickly as I defeated Mike in about 15 minutes. The second game, against Andrew (yes, we had the same name, try not to get confused), took much longer. Maybe 45 minutes. He had me on the ropes, but he made a mistake and allowed me to get a pawn across the board. In a second the game shifted. I now had a queen and a rook, while he only had his queen. I cornered him and we traded queens before he resigned. It was actually a really fun game, because neither of us were particularly good, and we were evenly matched.
Afterwards, we spent the evening hanging around with 2 canadian girls, and a canadian dude. The girls were camping at the campground the hostel has outside
The rental car
Ok, I forgot to take a pic of it, but this is the same model.
of town. They hadn't seen the beaches yet, so we invited them to come along, making it 5 people splitting the cost of the car instead of 3. They left around 11, and about the same time the tour group that was staying at the hostel came back. They were drunk, rowdy, french people in their 50's. Pretty hilarious actually.
The next morning we got up really early (around sunrise) and ate a fantastic breakfast of eggs, meat, cheese, cereal, yogurt, and bread. Best meal I've seen in a hostel to date. After breakfast we walked to the car rental place to get the car. They photocopied my passport and driver license as well as taking a deposit on the credit card. After taking care of the paperwork, I went outside and got instruction in using the car (a Renault). Yes, it was somewhat more complicated than putting the key in and turning it on. In fact, it didn't have a key insomuch as it had a little plastic card that you put into a slot in the dash. It also had a start button...Otherwise, it was normal enough. It took a little bit to get everything adjusted adequately (I'm not exactly giant, but my head hit the roof every time I checked the blind spot).
Anyway, we got going and headed out to the campground to pick up the girls. They were waiting for us, and after some creative packing we managed to fit 5 people, and 5 large backpacks into the car. I was impressed. Thankfully the girls were tiny, or Mike would have had a hard time in the back seat.
We headed west on a freeway (110kph) for about 20 minutes before turning onto country roads on our way to Utah beach. We arrived at the beach and found a memorial and a small museum, but the beach itself was pretty nondescript. Really nothing to make you realize this is where thousands of American soldiers fought their way ashore. We hung out for a bit before moving on to the next stop -- Point du Hoc.
Point du Hoc is a spit of land that had commanding views towards both Utah and Omaha beaches. For that reason, the rangers were tasked with assaulting the sheer cliffs and removing the gun batteries on top. Now, this was more what I was expecting to see. As you walk from the parking lot towards the cliffs, you begin passing large circular pits. It doesn't take long to figure out that they're craters from the aerial and naval bombardment that preceded the assault. Some of them are enormous.
As you get closer to the cliffs, bunkers start appearing. Some of the bunkers were almost entirely intact, while others varied from partially to completely destroyed. It's sobering to see what the bombardment did to the massive reinforced concrete structures. It's also chilling to know that the rangers still faced a large, prepared force when they reached the top of the cliffs, despite the bombardment. The rangers, after taking heavy casualties did prevail. However, they were not reinforced for two full days. In the end they had 90 combat effective out of an initial force of 225.
After the sobering Point, we moved on to the most famous of the beaches -- Omaha. When you arrive at the long stretch of beach called Omaha, you quickly realize the difficulty. The beach is backed by large hills, unlike the relatively small dunes at Utah. There are a couple of memorials at the beach, as well as a nearby museum which we stopped at. The museum had tons of artifacts, but wasn't really worth the 4.50€ it cost us to get in.
After spending about 45 minutes at the museum we moved on to the American military cemetery. Seeing the 10,000 crosses and stars of David was a stirring experience. We spent about an hour just walking around and reflecting on the sacrifice made by those men. It is fitting that the cemetery is located in a beautiful spot overlooking the ocean, and it lives up to the reputation of being immaculately cared for.
After leaving the cemetery, we headed towards the Canadian beach (Juneau). On the way there, we rolled down the windows because the sun had come up and it was getting hot. Andrew's window went down about 4 inches and then got stuck. No matter what we tried it wouldn't go down or back up. Wonderful, I thought, now I get to argue with the car rental place.
Juneau beach was a bit of a letdown, at least for the Canadians. There was only a small memorial that we found, and there were tons of windsurfers taking advantage of the steady winds on the beach. Oh well, after hanging out there for a bit, we headed back to Bayeux to drop off the car and pick up tickets for a concert that night in Caen.
I'll end this one there, and continue with Caen, so stay tuned.
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