Pegasus Bridge, which film buffs should remember from The Longest Day - Sorry I'm late, old chap ... Think nothing of it, old chap - something like that anyway. This is the view across the bridge to the cafe and the building adjoining it, both as they were in the film, and, more importantly, in 1944. The cafe is run by a woman who was a small child at the time, whose parents owned the same cafe. Sadly, Mr B and I didn't realise this till later - but out of our choice to visit the other cafe, facing it across the road, came a most enjoyable moment of sheer ... smugness. Incidentally, the bridge is not the original one; it now stands in the grounds of the museum looking just like this one only - I think - slightly narrower.
But to our morning coffee moment. Hastening across the bridge from the museum as if the entire German army was on our heels, we met our Glorious Leader. We saw, behind him, several of our compadres sitting at a table outside the cafe in the photo. I wouldn't come in here if you're looking for coffee, he announced. The woman's as cheerful as Basil Fawlty. Such was my need of coffee I loitered no longer, but headed into the other establishment, empty except for a taciturn man in an orange t-shirt. A fag - surely a Gauloise? - dangled artistically from a corner of his lower lip. I smiled beguilingly. Bonjour, Monsieur...Is it possible - in faultless French, I may add - to have coffee? And, perhaps, un petit quelque chose a emporter - un sandwich, peut-être?
Downturned mouth, shrug ... peut-être, Madame. Je vais demander. I kept smiling, and I kept speaking French. The coffee arrived, and we sat in the sun and watched a boat going under Pegasus Bridge and noticed how about 20 of our friends were stranded on the far side by this operation. Gauloise reappeared. Jambon et beurre? ... Parfait, monsieur. Merci. And as our friends straggled in, also searching for coffee and something to eat later, our half-baguettes appeared, stuffed with the most luscious ham, rich with butter, neatly parcelled in brown paper bags with a paper napkin round them. I bought some risqué postcards, explaining that they were for the loo wall of my Norman daughter-in-law. He gave me a deal on half a dozen, explaining that actually he didn't know the price of these ones. We parted with great bonhomie, the best of friends. Not a word of English had been spoken. Hence the smugness. The sandwiches, incidentally, were as good as they looked, and even the golden crusts weren't a challenge to my fragile teeth.
It must be hard living in this kind of tourist mecca. Ok, the business is considerably brisker than in other French backwaters, but there's a niggle in my mind about this constant memorial activity, in a countryside that was ravaged by war and is now picked over by the descendants of those who ravaged it (for there were German tourists too, in several of the sites we visited. Naturally.) The Basil Fawlty woman has become a tourist attraction in her own right - but how hard to keep pleasant when you're setting for lunch and a gaggle of coffee-and-sandwich types appears just before l'heure de dejeuner.
Our day continued with a visit to Merville Battery (where we had the experience of being in a gun turret during the invasion) and ended in Caen, where some of us had an adventure with a sparrow hawk, a terrified pigeon (in our bedroom, natch), and another pigeon devoured before our eyes in the garden of the Kyriad Hotel. We took our tea nonetheless, an upturned rubbish bin serving as a coffee table. We were seasoned campaigners, and were not about to let a bit of random slaughter get between us and our refreshment.
We spent our third day in France reliving the American experience on Omaha Beach. I felt I knew most of what happened there from endless re-runs of The Longest Day (shot on location: we saw photos of local involvement in the filming) and the more recent Saving Private Ryan, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of the cemetery that takes up the whole area on the cliffs where the German defences were sited above the main beach. There is something about the starkness of the white crosses rising straight out of the cropped grass, crosses that had name, rank and company as well as home state and date of death, that depersonalised the loss for me - no emblems, no age given for the dead, no flowerbeds around the graves. Instead, I was forcibly aware of the anonymity of these ranks - look at the lines, which flow straight in every direction - and the dedication that ensures that every single grave has this cropped grass round the foot of the cross (or Star of David: you can see one to the right of centre in the photo). There were clumps of heather round the pine trees grouped occasionally around the site, a multi-faith chapel that was too over-run by visitors to give me any sense of anything, and a Garden of the Missing where a 22-foot statue ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ looks west over the headstones - over 9,000 graves, among which are the stones of 45 sets of brothers, and 1,557 missing in action.
But even more than among the graves, it was down on the beach that I felt the hopelessness of the task faced by these young men from halfway across the world as the ramps of their landing craft fell forward and they saw what they had to climb, under withering fire, if the invasion was to succeed.
good 15 minutes to climb back up. The area in between is now covered in shrubs that I imagine have been planted to deter wandering in this site, which is entirely given over as a memorial.
After a break for lunch had turned into a truly French affair (because some of us went looking for a crêperie and ordered galettes complètes and while this is fast food for one it isn't for 14), we visited another sobering site above the Pointe du Hoc, where the American Rangers had to climb the cliffs to reach the huge guns which actually for the most part faced inland because the Germans didn't think anyone would make that climb. The whole area was pitted with the holes from the shellfire from the Allied ships, and we were able to go inside the concrete gun emplacements and see the view made famous by a scene in The Longest Day when a German officer first saw the invasion on the horizon. We went from there to another iconic site, where an American paratrooper famously caught on the roof of the church in Ste Mere Eglise and hung there for hours pretending to be dead to avoid being shot. A museum stands on the site where on the fateful night a house was on fire, and - somewhat bizarrely - we could see from the town square the torn parachute and (model) paratrooper still hanging from the church roof.
That evening, like the previous one, was spent in raucous entertainment. The young staff of the Chateau flocked, like little moths, to the door of the room where this mob of ancients acted Allo Allo in execrable French accents and sang wartime favourites and French songs at the top of their still-unbelievably-loud voices to the accompaniment of a small keyboard pounded to great effect by Mr B.
As I've said on previous occasions, you really had to be there ...
Our first full day begins early. (We soon discover that this will be the norm throughout - brisk breakfasts and trotting toilettes). It is more or less dark when we get up, with that chilly, mist-laden dawn that characterises the early morning in France where mornings are earlier than they are in Scotland because they're not really far enough east to justify being an hour ahead. But I digress. We drive through misty fields with picturesque rolls of whatever crop it is they grow in these parts and find ourselves on the headland above the small town of Arromanches. This is where most of the British troops came ashore on D-Day, and where the Mulberry Harbour was built to allow equipment and supplies to be brought ashore. Several bits of the harbour remain visible in the sea as well as abandoned on the beach (above).
The visit takes on what will become a familiar pattern: an overview, a museum visit, extended free time to explore and ponder. I add to this the pressing need for coffee and insist that a small cafe across the road from the museum should be our first stop. There is something wonderfully sinful about lunching on an espresso, a bottle of water and a crêpe au caramel salé ...
Four of us, feeling relatively lithe and fit, set off through the town towards the headland. We pass several of our fellow-Fahrters eating substantially in various hostelries, but do not yield. We clamber on a concrete gun emplacement, we walk along a cliff path that is forbidden because of erosion. No-one falls off, and we return to the town for a small pichet of rosé before the coach drive to our next visit, noting as we go that several objects along the shop fronts are cosily wrapped in squares of ... knitting. I know. I don't get it either.
The remainder of the afternoon is spent visiting the German war graveyard at La Cambe. This site was developed between 1958 and 1961, with a great deal of work being done by an international youth camp in 1959. Now more than 21,000 German soldiers are buried here. I found it a sombre place; the graves are marked by flat dark basalt lava plaques about the size of an open book, and watched over by groups of low crosses in dark stone. We are so accustomed to seeing movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, where the German soldiers are anonymous figures to be killed or captured by the invading Allies; it is all too easy to forget the humanity of individual boys and men who fought in their thousands and died far from home. Albert Schweitzer said "the soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace", and on the plinth below the heavy cross at the centre of the cemetery there is an inscription which ends with the words: Gott hat das letzte wort. This was one of the places where I felt an overwhelming need to be on my own, and I wandered far, looking at the stones where two or even three names were recorded together. Several were dedicated simply to Ein Deutscher Soldat.
The day ended not in pious reflection but in raucous singing of songs associated with the period of WW2. Several years ago, when we paid a similar visit to the battlefields of the Somme, I thought I would find this jarring, but realised that we were no different from the soldiers who would celebrate the fact that they were still alive by being ... themselves. The Château rang with the noise until well on in the evening and I was glad we were sleeping on the top floor. As I went to bed I could hear an owl among the trees outside and then it was silent. Another early start awaited us ...
I've been away. And although I've been back for several days now, my days in Normandy are still very much with me - so much so that I feel a diarist's approach might be better than trying to encompass everything in one post. So here we are with Day1: the journey...
By the time the 2014 Fahrt (German for 'journey', natch, but capable of other interpretation) arrives on the Continent, it has already been on the road for 24 hours. (Collective noun in use, as well as 'road' standing also for 'sea'). Around 40 people have been gathered into a coach from Linlithgow lay-byes, Asda carparks and the like and driven to Hull - a city which, as Philip Larkin apparently observed, people only visit if they have business there. Our business was the P&O ferry to Zeebrugge, on which we had booked basic cabins (no porthole, bunk beds). Some of us chickened out of this and paid for upgrades ... The food and service were excellent; most of us have slept. I have not. I blame the decaff. I think it wasn't.
But onward. Onward south and west, into France and on to the Chateau du Molay, where we are staying in the accommodation usually used by school trips. We have visited our first war graves, in the War Graves Commission cemetery in Bayeux (above). There we have laid a wreath in memory of a Linlithgow soldier buried there, and have been moved by the sight of so many graves and the sound of the Last Post echoing through the birdsong of early evening. (Mr B had his iPod and Bose dock with him). I am forcibly struck by the dates of birth on so many of the stones - so many of these soldiers had been born in the years when my parents were born and I realise that we represent the children they never had.
We soon find, Mr B and I, that although we have to consign our luggage to the lift and will henceforth be scampering up 3 flights of stairs to reach our room, which is in the roof and has a Velux window, we are blessed with two single beds (some rooms have multiple bunks) and a kettle. I even seem to have a feather pillow. My cup is already full before I eat; the rest of me is soon full of an excellent dinner. The noise level in the dining room is startling. Mr B and I slip out as the Fahrters head for the bar. Outside, the moon is shining and it is silent apart from the residual hum in our ears. The chateau looks romantic and peaceful. It is going to be a good Fahrt.