My Travel Map

My Travel Map

15 September 2018

Le Mont-Saint-Michel, France

From a distance, it is a place right out of a fairy tale.  I couldn't avoid a visit here, to Mont-Saint-Michel.  It was a quick visit, which I don't regret.  It was meant to see the place, not take it in.  As I expected, up close, the fairy tale is swarming with the kind of tourist that I more prefer to avoid. Anyway, this will be a picture-heavy, prose-light post.

As I approached by car, the unique feature in the landscape became visible beyond the swaying fields.  I was lucky with the combination of clouds, sun, and wind; it was a serendipitous scene.

The fields were so fluid in the wind. The scene was somewhat hypnotizing, like something out of some fantastical dream.

The view of the city on the hill in the distance, bursting from the otherwise perfectly flat landscape, could be out of any time in the last 700 years or more. Mont-Saint-Michel has housed a monastery since the 8th century. Of course, the city and abbey have developed and been reconstructed over the 1200 years since then. The site is strategic and easily defendable from ancient siege tactics, and there is evidence of fortifications here since ancient times.

Getting closer, the city retains its charm, but the construction of a new roadway over the coastal flats leading up to it definitely did not add to the appeal of the place. Mont-Saint-Michel is officially part of Normandy, though this is a point of mild contention with neighboring Brittany.

The land on which the monastery is built is really a granite island. A causeway (which they were overhauling to modernize the road to the island) stretches out to the island, offering safe passage at any tide. The surrounding meadows are really salt marsh, which is apparently good terrain for raising sheep and tasty, pre-seasoned lambs.

The tidal flats surrounding the monastery were a peril to medieval pilgrims attempting to reach the monastery. Being such flat terrain, the tide comes in and goes out very, very quickly here, and modern tourists still have troubles and sometimes even get stranded (and very wet) in the incoming tide.  Another granite island mount is seen rising out of the bay in the distance on the right of this picture.

A view up close, now, with all the tourists and part of the modern causeway.

The monastery dates back to the 10th century, though it has been renovated and expanded over the millennium since then.

The French and Norman flags fly proudly over the city walls.

Inside the city, an American flag still flies beside that of France. The city is literally something from out of the past. It is charming but for the hordes. Most of my shots were taken looking up above head level. The city only has 50 people that live in it now, but it hit its peak in the mid-1800s with close to 1200 people living within the walls.

The half-timbered architecture is just classic and actually authentic here!

The mobs of tourists... it wasn't too bad compared to some other European hotspots that I've seen.  However, there weren't many tour buses out there, so maybe I just lucked out and hit a lull.  Thank goodness there is no cruise port here!

At least there aren't any tourists up here.

03 September 2018

Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

This Embattled Shore.
On June 6th, 1944 Allied troops invaded Nazi-occupied France.  The literal beachheads of this invasion were five sectors along the Normandy coast.  Five beaches were targeted and code-named: Gold and Sword Beaches for British-led forces, Juno Beach for Canadian forces, and Utah and Omaha Beaches for the Americans.  The fighting was notoriously brutal at Omaha Beach, where the American forces faced unexpectedly strong German defenses. This sand has seen blood and fire.

A view coming into Colleville sur Mer, the village just inland from Omaha Beach.  The village was one of the next major strategic objectives for American forces after the beachhead was established. 

There are reminders everywhere that this place is special.  It is not at all common to see anything Americana in France, but this village remembers and still honors its liberators.

In addition to the reminders of the war, there are also many reminders that one is very much still in Normandy: note the sign here for calvados and cider.

The village has posted large pictures from the war around town, often showing buildings and scenes that are also in the field of view.  This one shows how the church tower has been completely rebuilt.  The church was shattered during the fighting.  Church towers were valuable strategic positions, often offering excellent 360 deg fields of view over a large area, making for deadly perches for snipers and machine gun teams.

Note the American flag alongside the French one and the historical pictures in the windows.

The experience of seeing this place and the memorial park at the beach was a powerfully emotional one for me.  I can't imagine how these people felt and what they thought when the Allied forces moved through and restored French liberty from the brutal and terrifying Nazi occupiers.

Down on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach, there is an enormous memorial park and cemetery.

This map shows the major Allied operations in Western Europe during and after D-Day.  The D-Day invasion is indicated with the five arrows pointing down (south) together in the middle left of this map.  German counter-offensives are shown with the black arrows, like the Battle of the Bulge seen in the middle.

The main Allied forces coordinated with the French Resistance to disrupt German defense operations and sow chaos and confusion early in the morning before the invasion.  Resistance members and paratrooper and glider forces played important roles in the success of the operation.

This zoomed in version shows the details of the invasion forces at Omaha Beach.  Bayeux and Colleville sur Mer are both visible on this map. Arrows on a map like this don't do any justice for the 10s of thousands of soldiers and many more civilians that were embroiled in these battles.  Each of those people experienced their own personalized set of experiences and emotions.  It's sad to think that so many of those stories will fade into the past... if only we could have captured those and immortalized them alongside this theater map.

As I mentioned before, American paratroopers played a major role in the invasion. Some of their stories are captured in Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and D-Day books.  The former of those was turned into an HBO miniseries of the same name, which follows members of the 101st Airborne's Easy Company from training through the post-war occupation of Germany.  The 101st saw major action at Carentan. The 82nd Airborne Division also landed on D-Day and had major objectives throughout the region. If my memory serves me well, then I think it was in St. Mere Eglise that a member of the 82nd Airborne ended up coming down on the church and getting his parachute rigging caught in the steeple. The soldier hung there for several hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans cut him down and took him prisoner. This was one of many cases of missed drop zones for airborne infantry divisions in Operation Overlord, but despite the calamity, the airborne fought through and achieved their objectives.  St. Mere Eglise became the first French village to be liberated by Allied forces on D-Day.

This is the view that the Nazi defenders would have had looking down on Omaha Beach.  The bluffs above the beach offered a distinct advantage to the defenders, who could rain hell down on the invasion forces from above.

Wave after wave of landing craft deposited troops on this strand, which at the time would have been mined, heavily cratered from the Allied naval and Nazi artillery bombardments, and littered liberally with large steel "hedgehogs" that were intended to rip open the underside of landing craft.

That is a lot of open sand to run across under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. The bravery exhibited by combat soldiers, many of whom are just ordinary people put into extraordinary situations, is testament to the strength that lies within the human mind and body.

This is the view up from the beach, which is the vantage that the landing forces had.  Those heights would have held Nazi machine gun nests, heavy gun emplacements, infantry trenches, and bunkers.

D-Day happened during a break in a storm that sat over the coast for several days, delaying the start of the operation.  When I first got there, the skies were overcast like this, which added a chillingly ominous atmosphere to the visit and reminded me of what the weather conditions might have been like on the day of the actual event.  Within an hour or so, the skies cleared, and I was treated to some beautiful, warm sunshine and blue skies.

There are still some scant remnants from the German defenses and Allied beachhead infrastructure, but I was really impressed and surprised by how natural and seemingly untouched by humans the shore's landscape was. In other sites around the area, there are some better preserved remnants of the Nazi's "Fortress Europe", the collection of defensive infrastructure established to repel any attack.  As Canadian forces showed at Dieppe in 1942 and the Allies showed again at D-Day, Hitler's "Fortress" wasn't as strong as intended. For D-Day, the Allies successfully misled the Nazi forces into thinking that the main invasion force would strike at Calais, which is adjacent to the narrowest point in the English Channel.  Nazi armored divisions were stationed there, and Nazi leadership were convinced until it was far too late that the Normandy invasion was just a ruse to pull those forces away from defending Calais.

Looking inland, one can only imagine what was going through soldiers' minds as they reached the summit of the sea wall, exhausted and battered, and looked out into occupied Normandy and the many, many terrible battles still ahead of them.

The memorial park and cemetery that now sit at the top of the bluffs is a somber place in a beautiful setting.

The style is most definitely American... reminiscent of what one expects from a trip to Washington, D.C.

The memorial structure houses the maps shown above.

And the cemetery, with its row upon row upon row of the dead.

Jewish soldiers' graves are indicated with the Star of David. The tombstones stretch so far into the distance, it is impossible for the brain to gauge just how many are buried there. Apparently, the number of dead, wounded, and missing on the American side at Omaha Beach is unknown, but the estimates range from 2000 to more than 5000. The casualty total for the German defenders was 1200. I don't know where their dead were buried, but I'm certain they don't have a memorial like this one.

This was a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division; like so many buried here, he died on D-Day. All of the graves I saw there are marked with death dates either on or within just a few days of June 6th, 1944. The graveyard probably was established immediately following the landing and successful securing of the beachhead.  I guess this was the spot where the Americans first started to bury their dead, and as the dead came in over the next several days of operations, they ended up here. too.

The families of those lost still come to pay their respects.

Like the cemetery in Bayeux, this is a tranquil and beautiful place for one's body to rest.

Now, Omaha Beach is a strip of beautiful and peaceful coastline.  May it always stay that way and never again play host to the bloody horror of war.