That’s why it’s called a bumper
The next adventure we planned was a 10-day road trip through France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. We wanted to take a tour of the significant battlefields from World War II (as well as some other places). We liked the freedom of driving ourselves rather than bussing between places.
So we rented a car in Paris and took off.
Getting out of the middle of Paris was nerve-wracking. Andy is a great driver. Driving in Paris is just A LOT. After some confusing traffic circles and one-way streets, we finally made it out in one piece.
First stop, Versailles.
We didn’t want to spend a lot of time there (we didn’t go inside the palace), but we spent a few minutes wandering the grounds. It is so beautiful and grand.
I could understand why the people revolted against such power and accumulation of wealth.
That evening, our stop was a nice campground in Beauvoir. We were actually excited to be back in the tent for a few days. We quickly realized that we were the only tent campers in the campground. Everyone else was in trailers or campervans. We wondered if this was because of the changing of the seasons or if tent camping just wasn’t popular there.
We drove into town to buy groceries and parked near a small grocery store. In front of us, a French woman was attempting to parallel park.
Suddenly, the car shot backward, and her car’s ball hitch smashed right into the front of our car.
I saw it happen in slow motion, my mouth open and my eyes wide, bracing for impact.
We got out of our rental to inspect the damage. I cringed when I remembered our dismissal of the collision and damage policy from the rental company.
The passengers from the other car piled out, rushing to the back of their car.
A quick glance revealed no major damage. The French group loudly and enthusiastically proclaimed in broken English, “it’s fine! Everything is fine! Look, it’s fine, no damage!”
We were rattled and insisted on a more thorough check of our vehicle.
The group, two older couples who appeared to have been drinking, asked us where we were from. We told them the United States, to which they replied we were “good people, very nice!”, perhaps because we weren’t yelling at them for hitting us.
When we were satisfied that there wasn’t visible damage, the group invited us to join them for dinner. We politely declined. That was more than enough interaction for the evening. We wished them well and parted ways. We grabbed our groceries for dinner and left before we could have any more run-ins with locals.
Back in camp, we unwound with wine, Camembert cheese, a baguette, and a banana for dessert. Très chic camp cuisine.
Our camping spot was less than 3 miles from Le Mont Saint-Michel, an abbey on a tidal island about 1 kilometer off the coast of Normandy.
I first spotted it in the distance when we were driving in the day before. I gasped and pointed, “there it is!” The late afternoon light and the ocean mist gave it a celestial glow. There it was, rising out of the water like a magical castle.
We woke up early the next morning, grabbed pastries and coffee from a nearby cafe, and went to explore this enchanted island.
The first monastic structures were built in the 8th century, long before France was France. It survived the Hundred Years War and repeated assaults by Britain. It even served as a prison during the French Revolution.
Members of the Benedictine Brotherhood returned to the island in 1966.
We spent the whole day exploring the island, taking in the views from every angle. The maze-like architecture built up the side of the mountain provides so many alleys, nooks and crannies to wander through. It would be easy to spend even more time there.
That night, we went to a viewing platform to watch the sunset. We sat there with a couple of dozen other people, watching the colors play across the sky. It was one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen.
The beaches of Normandy
September 20th: Utah Beach
From Mont Saint-Michel, we headed to Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five landing beaches used by the Allies on D-Day. Through amphibious assault and air support, these brave men were able to secure the beach and surrounding area.
While we were here, we got to see the many monuments to the branches of the military that made this victory possible. Utah Beach is the starting point of Liberty Road, a commemorative way following the route of allied forces. It stretches all the way to Bastogne, Belgium.
The tide was out, and we took a walk out onto the beach. Looking back at the dunes and bunkers, it was very apparent why the allies had to invade at high tide. The vast expanse of open sand would have been terrifying under fire.
We stopped for lunch at Le Roosevelt cafe, an American-themed restaurant right on Utah Beach. We were happy to see hamburgers and fries on the menu and delighted to hear the throwback American music playing over the speakers.
After lunch, we visited the Utah Beach Landing Museum, where we learned more details about what happened in this spot over 75 years ago. We learned about the landing at Utah beach and the French resistance intelligence-gathering that took place prior to D-Day.
One aspect of the preparations that surprised us was the events of Operation Tiger. This was a D-Day practice run that resulted in the tragic loss of 946 American servicemen—more losses than the actual Utah Beach landing of 200.
That night, we ate dinner underneath the stars, close enough to the beach to hear the waves crashing.
Until then, D-Day had always felt like some far-away cinematic event to me. I knew it was a place where a bunch of American soldiers died fighting the Nazis. But in my head, it was a place that existed somewhere else, somewhere I would never see or experience.
But there we were. It was a very real place.
We knew seeing these places would be grim and heartbreaking at times. But we felt it was important to witness the places where so many died for our freedom. We were so thankful for this opportunity to learn more about this part of our nation’s and our world’s history.
September 21st: Saint Marie du Mont and Pointe du Hoc
The next morning we drove around Sainte Marie du Mont. This was a key objective for the US Airborne divisions that landed behind enemy lines early the morning of D-Day.
From Saint Marie du Mont, we stopped to see the Richard D. Winters Leadership Memorial, as well as the 101st Airborne Division “Easy Company” Memorial. The memorial is near the sight of the assault on Brécourt Manor, where Lt. Richard Winters and 12 men disabled four 105mm howitzers. This courageous act greatly reduced the threat to forces landing at Utah Beach.
Next, we stopped at Pointe du Hoc, a heavily defended German stronghold. From here, the German artillery could target Allied forces on the water and on Utah and Omaha beaches.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, US Army Rangers scaled the 90-foot cliffs to capture and hold this position, establishing an Allied foothold in France. This area was heavily bombed, leading up to the invasion to destroy enemy artillery and bunkers.
The craters that remain are massive (see Andy for scale) and numerous.
In the museum here, there is a video loop playing interviews with the veterans who survived that day. They made it off the boats into cold, rough waters, climbed the 90-foot cliffs, and then fought two and a half days before relief came.
Of the 225 rangers who started this mission, only 90 survived.
September 22nd: Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach was the last stop on our tour of Normandy. We stopped at the Operation Overlord Museum and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
The cemetery was such a beautiful place overlooking the beach where the bloodiest of the D-Day landings took place.
The perfectly lined rows of stark white markers represent the 9,388 American soldiers laid to rest here. The monuments, like the statue ascending to the heavens, emphasize just how young these soldiers were.
We overheard a tour guide explaining the symbolic trimming of the trees in the cemetery—“cut off in their prime, just like the young soldiers who are buried here.”
Our campsite was very near the beach, so that evening we took a walk and see Les Braves Memorial Monument.
It consists of three elements, “The Wings of Hope,” “Rise, Freedom!” and “The Wings of Fraternity.”
We also came upon the granite turtle-shaped memorial dedicated to retired Master Sgt. Charles Norman Shay of the Penobscot Tribe. Master Sgt. Shay was a US Army medic during the Omaha Beach landing. It is the first French monument to honor American Indian soldiers who fought on D-Day.
Our road trip around Normandy was one of the highlights of our western European travels. We loved seeing places that were so historically significant. We also loved getting to see the countryside and coastline of northern France.