26 May 2013

Bayeux to Omaha Beach

The Norman landscape is a tapestry of luxury accommodations, farmland, bed and breakfasts, medieval history, World War II memorials, and everyday life for its 1.4 million inhabitants.
On the morning of 30 April 2011, I rolled out of bed at Hotel de la Gare, packed my camera, checked my map again, filled my water bottle, checked my bananas and granola bars, and headed downstairs for petit-dejeuner—a mug of French coffee and a toasted baguette with fruit jelly.

I'd spent part of the previous afternoon photographing the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux. While picking up a copy of "Notre Dame Cathedral Bayeux" by Francois Neveux with Claire Ruelle, I'd heard the staff at the Office de Tourisme say the American Cemetery was 18 kilometers away. So I gave myself three and a half hours to get there. 
The cathedral's two towers reflect the original Romanesque style used when Bishop Odo de Conteville and his predecessor first built the cathedral in the 11th century. Odo was William the Conqueror's half-brother and also commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, which celebrates William's victory over another half-brother, Henry, and which has its own museum in Bayeux.
The cathedral burnt in 1106 and 1160, and repairs followed, but the bulk of the present Gothic structure was built during the 13th century. The choir was built 1220 to 1240 in the early Gothic style. The chapels radiating out from the choir were incorporated into the original construction, which allowed the architect to conceal the abutments in the chapel walls, and the choir vault is supported by relatively understated flying buttresses. 
In the latter half of the 13th century, the architect designed the Gothic upper level of the nave in one rather than two levels as is common in Gothic architecture. These are the windows over the Dean's portal, built during that time.
Gargoyles serving as downspouts for rainwater runoff.

Construction on the central tower began in the 15th century. The second level was completed during the 19th century. 
The Saint Hilary, Saint Contest, and Saint Honorina's Chapel was built in the second half of the 13th century. These windows and a painting inside date to 1839. 

The weather was cool and foggy as I started across town. The cathedral spires were barely visible. I headed for the main road to Port-en-Bessin.

I checked my pace on the map and just took in the countryside as the fog gradually lifted. I turned more directly west at the roundabout just south of Port-en-Bessin, followed the signs to Coleville-sur-Mer, and then followed a few more signs to the cemetery.

Most of the time there was enough room to walk on the side of the road. But there were a couple of spots where it seemed prudent to listen around corners and then walk quickly.  

April roses 

barbed wire

lilacs blooming
I stopped a couple of times to refuel with bananas and granola bars and washed it down with some water. Remembering something I read in Laurence Gonzales' "Deep Survival," I looked over my shoulder every once in a while just to make sure I'd recognize my return trip.

Walking through security at the cemetery, I wasn't sure what to expect. Several friends had described the experience in such emotional terms. So I decided to see the beach first.

What's left of German fortifications stick out of the ground here and there as though the landscape is gradually swallowing them from memory. Here you can see the monument to the Fifth Engineer Special Brigade just at the crest of the hill that unit helped take.

The basement of the visitor center houses a chronological museum, explaining the entire invasion from the planning stages forward. But it wouldn't have been the same experience without walking across Omaha beach. It's one thing to read about soldiers pouring out of landing craft seasick, soaking wet, and under fire; it's another thing to feel your clothes absorbing the salty mist as you try to figure out from which directions the German fire must have been coming.

a fellow Oklahoman
a fellow Washingtonian

The thing that struck me most was not the magnitude of the invasion or the collective sacrifice but the individual sense of duty required to hold it all together. And it wasn't pride or patriotism I felt but gratitude and wonder what might be required of me so that others might flourish.

On the way back, the sun came out, and it warmed up enough for me to shed the water resistent windbreaker. After running out of granola bars and bananas, I stopped for a bacon, egg, and fish sandwich by the port in Port-en-Bessin. It was a work of art.

Back in Bayeux I detoured through the public garden, happened by a soccer game at the Stade Saint-Julien, and visited the Reporters' Memorial—a grassed pathway flanked by 23 upright stone slabs engraved with the names of journalists killed while doing their jobs.

I'm grateful.


  1. Wonderful post, Loren. Beautiful photos filled with that quintessential morning light. I've not yet visited Normandy, but I did visit Anzio and the site of the Battle of the Bulge, and both were very moving to me as well.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. The weather couldn't have been much better for photography.

  2. Love the pictures. Thanks for sharing your experiences and "giving us eyes" to those international scenes.

    Very wise of you to watch your back trail :)

    1. Thanks, Toni. It was a great day to be able to share...even in this small way.