Today we left base camp at Arromanches for a day trip ride up the coast to Omaha Beach. Before I start talking about the day though, I’ll just mention our base camp. We’re staying at a municipal campsite because it was the only one open in the area. Municipal campsites are about as basic as it gets, but this one is terrific. We have a nice grassy pitch, albeit not very flat, but that just means we have to sleep facing uphill to stop the blood rushing to our heads, but that’s OK. The showers are hot and the toilets have toilet paper supplied! This is a rarity, so we always give a place a big tick when they provide loo paper, because it saves having to fumble around in the dark to find our own supplies when a late-night trip to the facilities is required. This place also has, for the first time since being in France, his ’n her bathrooms! They are clearly signed as separate, rather than shared unisex bathrooms, but here’s the thing…as I was in the WC last night, washing my hands, who should walk in but a gent! Poor fella was probably so used to shared bathrooms that he didn’t even notice the sign and just wandered into the nearest available loo! Oh well, I just gave him a smile and a “Bonjour” and left him to it. So far, my gentleman bathroom acquaintances have been somewhat lacking in the lessons of door usage and sign reading, but not to worry. It’s all very amusing!
The morning started a little chilly, with a sea mist in the air that lingered all day, dropping the temperature down a notch or two compared to yesterday. It was nice to leave our weighty load behind for the day and simply cycle through the countryside. There were no bike paths today, we were on roads the whole way, but they were country roads that took us past lovely fields and through gorgeous little villages. It was nice riding through the villages with their narrow roads, flanked by stone walls and wheeling around the tight corners, past the stone buildings and chocolate box houses. As we rode along the roads this morning, looking at the fields and stone buildings, I said to Steve, “This is just magic.” It was. It was just a lovely, leisurely ride looking at some beautiful scenery and gorgeous towns and villages.
One of the first towns we came to was Port-en-Bessin and we detoured off the main road to ride down to the port. What a picture it was! I just love small coastal towns like this, with lovely buildings lining the port and no real development to detract from the original surroundings. There was a fish market happening too, which just made it all so “normal”, which was lovely.
We took a look at the memorial dedicated to the US troops that liberated the town on D-Day and then began our ride back to the main road, to continue on our way. As we were riding through the streets, we saw a cycle route sign. These have a small green cyclist icon and they point the way to designated cycle paths or recommended cycle routes, so we followed the little green cyclist and where did he lead us…? To an 18% gradient hill, straight up on cobblestones! We stopped and looked up this mighty incline and the cobbles that would add some extra resistance to any attempt to pedal up it. Will we or won’t we? We will! Off we went, pedal…pedal…pedal…it was a doozy of a hill, by far the steepest we’ve encountered, but at least we did it on weightless bikes, without our usual load. I don’t reckon we would have got up it fully loaded! We were quite chuffed with our achievement when we reached the top! In fact we had a few hills to ride today, but it was nice to be able to power up them on weightless bikes, free from our usual load.
On we went and entered the town of Colleville-sur-Mer, which was liberated by the troops who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. As we rode along the streets, we saw big photographs on the stone walls, showing images of the liberating troops entering the town. Look at this photo. See the building and the iron fence behind the line of people and the stone gatepost on the right?
Now look at this photo I took today. The building is the same and the fence is the same, even though they’re a bit covered by trees now. They are still there though, the same street, with the same features seventy years later. The gatepost is still there on the right of the photo too.
That’s one of the things I’ve been loving about riding through this region, so much is still original and unspoiled by progress or development. The towns and villages are lovely and really do take you back in time.
We went on to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. First stop was the visitors’ centre, which was a little like a museum, with information, films and artefacts from the D-Day landings at that site. Again, I enjoyed slowly walking around the exhibits and reading, taking in as much information as my small brain would hold. We then walked outside to the memorial, a large statute and reflecting pool (which was unfortunately empty) and long sweeping walls, with all the names of the soldiers who had died, engraved along them.
Past the memorial was the cemetery itself. Oh my. My stomach actually knotted as I walked along the lines of headstones, I think because it hit me that this wasn’t another monument or memorial like those we had visited so far, this was people. This cemetery is so famous and we had seen images of it in films (it’s in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan) and documentaries, but to be there, standing among those rows and rows of white headstones, it was extremely moving. The stark simplicity of the white granite crosses and Stars of David, in rows on a cliff overlooking the beach, was a very moving sight. The site was so peaceful too, there wasn’t a sound except for the birds and the sound of the waves crashing on the beach below. We walked along and I read many of the headstones, some of which gave the date of June 6, so these were soldiers who had died on D-Day itself , possibly during the landings and there were some that were unnamed too, which was sad to think they had died on the field of battle but were unidentified and unknown. They had their place in the cemetery though. It was a very touching experience, being there, seeing the cemetery and reading the headstones.
We then walked down to Omaha Beach and again felt the significance of standing on such a site. Having been to the places along the coast that were locations of the various D-Day landings, I’m really struck by the sheer scale of the operation. To see the huge, expansive beaches that stretch for miles and miles and miles along the coast and to think all of that was filled with troops, wave after wave after wave, for miles and miles. It’s quite staggering to think about and to stand there and picture the enormity of the event.
When we left the cemetery we rode around for a while to find Steve some lunch, then pedalled up another hill to sit beside a monument atop a cliff, looking down over Omaha Beach. We ate our lunch, reading the names on the monument and the information plaque nearby and just chatting about what we’d seen and the events that took place there. We were also sitting right beside another German artillery bunker, sitting in such a prime location on top of that cliff, overlooking all that would have been taking place on the beach below.
We had a nice ride back, returning to the little villages and towns, taking in the scenery and just reflecting on the day. When we reached Arromanches, there was our base camp, with our tent all set up and waiting for us.
So it’s been another amazing day of riding through history, learning about events and standing on the sites of those events. It’s been a moving day, at times sombre, but very very special. What an experience it has been and what a gift to have been able to visit these places and see, hear and feel what we have. This gift will be treasured.