Monday, June 20, 2016

Caen, France: A Rainy History

Just over a year ago, a few of my friends and I decided to head to Normandy for a history-rich weekend away from our small towns in France. Visiting Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery was important to us, which made the city of Caen the obvious destination. This region is known for its abundance of rainy days, but we were lucky enough to score a tiny bit of sunshine that weekend.

Our only full day in Caen happened to fall on Easter (we had arrived Friday night, spent that Saturday at the WWII sites, and left on Monday), so we started the day at Easter Mass at the Abbey of St. Étienne (l'Église Saint-Étienne). L'Église Saint-Étienne is the final resting place of William the Conqueror, who rose from Duke of Normandy to King of England in 1066 following the Battle of Hastings. (You can learn more about him here.) Although I did not partake in the service (I'm Jewish), I loved being part of the celebration! For my practicing friends, this was an especially meaningful Easter Sunday. Something cool about Caen is that their Hôtel de Ville (city hall) is attached to this church, so we got to see two landmarks at once.

The sun shone briefly, and as the entire city (/entire country) had shut down for the holiday, we visited the Château de Caen for its open grounds. William the Conqueror built this fortress around 1060, and many of its original foundations are still there (in ruin-form, which you may see below)! Today, it also houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, a church, and the Musée de Normandie (which we visited the following day and LOVED!). While I do not have photos from the Normandy Museum, it was a fun and interactive way to learn about this city's (and this region's) historical importance. Plus, castles always offer the most stunning panoramic views! (After all, you need eyes on the entire city in order to keep out intruders.)

The Abbey of St. Étienne is also known as l'Abbaye aux hommes ("Men's Abbey"), but William the Conqueror made sure to have an Abbaye aux dames ("Women's Abbey"), as well. This former monastery now functions as a church and convent, and the grounds and architecture are beautiful!

Perhaps one of my favorite memories of Caen was making flower crowns amid some Romanesque ruins! I had never made one before, so Maria gave us a lesson. We weren't quite sure where we were or the origin of these ruins, so if any of you know the answer, comment below!

And what sort of girls' weekend would it be without alcohol? Let me rephrase that--what sort of visit to Caen would exclude calvados?! Calvados is an apple brandy that originates from Normandy, and man is it strong. Yes, it comes in a shot glass, but I highly advise that you do not take it like a shot! Rather, you sip it slowly and enjoy it after your meal, like how you would drink limoncello. As they say in France, Chin chin!

Monday, June 6, 2016

In Honor of D-Day: Strolling Along Omaha Beach

I meant to write this post one year ago, but when I missed the date, I found it only fitting to hold off until this year.

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Normandy landings, better known as the D-Day invasion of World War II. Rather than try to sum it up myself, here's the U.S. Army's version:
On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which, “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 Soldiers to begin the slow, hard slog across Europe, to defeat Adolf Hitler’s crack troops.
During my eight months in France, my friends and I knew that we could not pass up the opportunity to visit Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery. So one dreary weekend in April 2015, we packed up and headed to northern France to visit this historical landmark.

As soon as we passed through those gates, we were on American soil, just like that. From the first language being English to the water fountains scattered throughout the grounds (never to be found in France), it sure felt like the U.S., too. And as much as I adore France and feel secure there, I breathed a sigh of relief to be back "home."

After passing through security, we made our way through the museum. There were personal accounts, historical texts, audio and video clips, artifacts, and even interactive displays that took you through the events leading up to the famed invasion, as well as the details of what happened. I did not take any photographs in the museum, except for this quote that greeted you upon the exit.

We walked out, and there was Omaha Beach, staring us in the face.

We learned that Omaha was a actually code name for the beach, as were Sword, Gold, Utah, and Juno. Taking the winding trails down to the beach, it felt like a nature trail rather than a former war zone.

It was a hilly descent (and climb), even with the boardwalk in place--we couldn't fathom the idea of being in full Army uniform, maneuvering through the grasses and trees and marsh to get to the enemy, all while protecting ourselves and our comrades. But the beach itself was beautiful and calm, the total opposite of what you would expect a World War II battlefield to be.

After wandering along the rocky shores, we headed up to the cemetery. Nearly 10,000 Americans have been laid to rest here, most of whom died during the D-Day invasion. It felt like a smaller, cloudier version of Arlington Cemetery: religious gravestones perfectly lined up, with monuments and reflecting pools along the pathways. The cemetery also offered a wonderful view of the beach.

It was a sobering day in Normandy, but we were so thankful to have visited. God Bless America.