We couldn’t have visited all the D-Day beaches without staying at our own rental for 10 days. We left Paris in our rental car and drove to Courseulles sur Mer, a town which forms part of Juno Beach. Our apartment was charming. The attic part of a typical Norman-style house, located a short walk from the beach and marina. Each day we were able to walk to the waterfront, have a nice seafood meal in the evenings and explore further afield with our car.
The main D-Day landing beaches are all around – Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah. There are memorial centres, statues, monuments, a great number of cemeteries along the Normandy coast and just south in areas like Caen. We had visited some of them in 2018 but this was a chance to explore leisurely and combine rest days and French history days along with a number of artillery-related sightseeing days. We needed a place to work at times too. The internet connection did not disappoint (which makes our Canadian internet look so expensive and inadequate).
Our host was very good about suggesting sights we could either walk to or drive to that might be of interest to us. Of course, I had to finally stop and visit the town of Bayeux as we’d missed it last visit. I thought the Bayeux tapestry would be just a small piece of very old cloth but I was wrong about that! We spent the day wandering through Bayeux which is historical not just because of its connection to William the Conqueror, but also as the first seat of government established by Charles de Gaulle after he returned to mainland France once the Allied Forces had retaken the country.
Another interesting town was Caen – site of the very ancient castle where William the Conqueror established his kingdom. The castle is no longer there but a number of old buildings remain to tell the story. Caen was a lovely place to have lunch at a café and explore the ruins of the castle and its fortifications.
Meals in this area consisted mainly of fish or seafood at dinner. I was able to cook in our apartment but we also enjoyed dropping into the restaurant which was located directly on the marine in Courseulles sur Mer. One of the first evenings there, Leon had mussels and fries, the ubiquitous moules frites. The portion was enormous and since I was still hungry after my modest portion of salmon, I tried some mussels. I enjoyed them so much we shared a few buckets of moules frites on other occasions – including making them at home recently. Although we drank wine, this area, Le Calvados, is an apple growing region. Cider and Calvados (similar to brandy) are local products.
We walked along the beachfront so many times. I was fascinated by the little beach cabanas. Fortunately, one day, there was a family of 3 having lunch outside their own cabana. We were able to have a long chat and they offered us a small cup of coffee. Just the thing on a thirsty walk. The gentleman in the group told us he was the president of the cabana-owners’ association. They are very difficult to purchase and generally you have to inherit one to own one. His own was inherited from his grandmother, although I can’t imagine how it survived WWII and the German occupation. At any rate, he said if you are able to find a cabana for sale, the building will set you back about 5000 Euros and then you will pay a lease fee for the location it sits on. Notice how all the cabanas are in the same style, very much as you would see in a condominium project.
The ocean front still has a few of the original houses that were there before the war. This area had been a popular resort spot for the French. There was even a train station in Bernières sur mer to welcome the city folks arriving from parts south. The fact that these lovely estates resisted destruction is likely because German soldiers occupied them during the war. The Grand Bunker pictured above showed us how the soldiers would live while on watch but we were assured that they would return to their comfortable, dry housing in the village where locals had to lodge and feed them. Imagine being French and being denied the use of that beautiful waterfront for over 4 years! This is one of the many stories of how the Allied Forces landing and liberation of France allowed the citizens to return to normal life. For that, you can see, in a tangible fashion, that they are eternally grateful.
When we weren’t walking along the waterfront or visiting a battlefield memorial, we loved exploring the countryside and chateau-spotting. Leon has a dream that he could own and restore a chateau in France. One thing that occupies my mind are the names of the towns in this region – Douvres la Délivrande, Hermanville-sur-Mer, Ouistreham, and don’t confuse Courseulles with Courcelles or Courseulles sur mer or you will get very lost. Leon would sometimes ask what a certain town name meant and really I was at a loss to answer. Just another mystery of language evolution.
One more thing I wanted to mention about this region was the many, many campervans we saw. It would seem the Normandy coast it the place where seniors go camping off season – a bit like what we do in Canada when we drive to our beautiful coasts while everyone else is back to work or school. We were fascinated by these campers’ ability to drive through the narrow streets that often only fit one vehicle at a time. The campground that was located in our town was les that luxurious. It consisted of a large open parking lot with hookups for sewers. No trees, no privacy partitions, no fire pits. I’ve seen open oceanfront camping in New Brunswick but this had absolutely no charm. Still we were interested in the various campers, many of which looks similar to our new campervan. We managed to ask a nice German couple for a quick tour of their unit and got some idea of the price (using paper and pen and a lot of sign language). Compare our unit at $100K USD to theirs (very similar model) at $55K USD. That’s what you get when you can shop for a Hungarian-made camper. One of the many benefits of the EU.